The changing face of leadership in a world of masks by Guru Bhat
Alexandre Dumas in his timeless classic –The Count of Monte Cristo – seems to have written these immortal words with humanity’s current predicament in mind when his protagonist Edmond Dantes says – “All human wisdom is summed up in these two words – Wait and Hope”. As we enter yet another month of the entire planet living under various shades of lockdown, waiting for this period to end and hoping that we can all go back to familiar – and in hindsight splendid – normalcy soon, I am grateful to work for a company whose products and services are more relevant than ever before and whose commitment to all its people burns bright even during the darkest of times.
Like many in all corners of the world, I have reluctantly developed a workable level of comfort with working from home. I am someone who fully identifies with Aristotle’s statement that Man is, by nature, a social animal and found it hard at first to not be in an office full of colleagues and bask in the warm glow of a community filled with connection and camaraderie. As time has passed, I have gotten used to the new normal and realize that if Aristotle were alive today, he would have probably said that Man is, by nature, also a virtual animal!
For many of us, our leadership ethos and our ideas around what constitutes effective leadership have been forged during times when we relied on face to face connection building, when we travelled to distant places to meet our teams in person, when we relied on transmitting authenticity in word and action through our physical presence. Having spent more than two months living under a lockdown and faced with the prospect of several more months of the same, I have been thinking about what, if anything, changes about how we look at leadership in these uncertain and unprecedented times.
Let us first examine in isolation what leadership is all about. True leadership that can stand the test of time has nothing to do with a sense of power or authority that position/hierarchy/title can bestow upon a person. It relies on bedrock principles that are just as true in a world where people meet only virtually, as they once were in a world where face to face interaction was the default. So, at a time when change is rife, what would we find if we were to unmask the changing face of leadership in a world full of masks? Dipping once again into the literary world for an apt quote, I offer you this – as the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said: The more things change, the more they remain the same. More than ever before, leaders need to transmit these bedrock qualities and amplify them in spite of the significant challenges that social distancing poses. Like vowels form the soft glue that binds harder consonants into words in the English language, these principles form the foundation on which all other qualities can be built, to create the magnificent edifice of exceptional leadership. Great leaders are always Authentic, Empathetic, Inquisitive, Optimistic and Unselfish – regardless of the circumstances.
Authenticity: In these times, a leader’s authenticity must be so all-encompassing and vivid in all forms of communication, that it can transcend the medium itself. Gone are the days when a leader can hope to transmit authenticity by looking others in the eye. The challenge is to now project one’s authentic self in every form of communication – Video Conference calls, Emails, Slack messages and even WhatsApp! In these times of social distancing, authenticity will need more effort to visibly demonstrate. Your emails might need to be longer and demonstrate compassion, empathy and emotion in a very mindful way. Your messages on all channels should assume less and clarify more. To distil it to the very essence, all of us can demonstrate authenticity by completely eliminating incongruence and dissonance between what one SAYS and what one DOES. By ensuring that the values we publicly espouse are the very ones we demonstrate – even when no one is looking.
Empathy: Often measured by how a leader responds with care and concern to the unsaid and unexpressed – now extends to measuring a leader’s response to the unheard, unseen and unobserved. Empathy is a trait that perhaps separates us humans from most beasts and certainly from the most intelligent of machines. It is the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes – which is a picturesque but perhaps cryptic way of saying that to be empathetic, one needs to know about the nuances of another’s life. In these days when most people “meet” over video calls often with the video turned off, how well do you know the people you work with, in order to be empathetic to their situation? For instance, I had a situation where one of my colleagues was dealing with taking care of a two-year old toddler all by herself and also feeling the pressure of “performing to her potential” on the work front. If her manager had not been empathetic and caring, he may have been oblivious to the herculean effort she was putting in to hold the fort on all fronts and may not have been able to support her in a meaningful way.
Inquisitiveness: Not too many people tag insatiable curiosity as being a marker of leadership acumen. Even in the most normal of times, it is a leader’s inquisitive spirit that makes teams dream big, shoot for the unfeasible and sail just that bit further to discover what lies beyond the horizon. With the Covid-19 pandemic paralyzing most of us with either fear or resignation, true leaders need to rely on their innate curiosity to visualize hidden opportunity and overcome the gravitational pull of present reality. Curiosity is not just an under-rated leadership trait, it is a massively discounted life skill. It is one of the magical ingredients that enables one to “think outside the box”. An inquisitive person is childlike in her/his efforts to learn about the world, derive joy in the pursuit of information and knowledge, in addition to finding satisfaction and fulfilment in the application of this knowledge. When a person demonstrates curiosity, it leads to connections being formed between disparate pieces of data – not because the person is more intuitive or intelligent – but because the brain instinctively tries to form connections between things it knows and knowing more will naturally mean more connections being formed. Human history is full of examples of curiosity being the driving force behind some of its greatest advances. The curiosity around shapes that led Archimedes to discover Pi and Buoyancy, the curiosity around something as mundane as an apple falling to the ground from a tree that caused Newton to discover the theory behind gravitational force and calculus (all of this incidentally when he was in a lockdown similar to our own in 1665 because of the Bubonic Plague) and the curiosity that led Einstein to enable innumerable advances for humankind. Curiosity has, and always will be, a harbinger of human progress – but we are in dire need now more than ever, of this magical quality in our leaders to collectively enable humanity to think outside the box.
Optimism: If there is one defining characteristic in abundance in practically every great leader through history, it is their ability to be relentlessly optimistic about the bright future, no matter how dark the present looks. Now more than ever, the world needs leadership capable of injecting a bracing dose of optimism into the world’s sagging shoulders. It goes without saying that this optimism should be relentless, but not blind or inauthentic. Optimism isn’t about kidding oneself blindly that all will be well. It is about weighing the facts and realizing that in any version of the future, there is always a great probability that all will be well – provided one works relentlessly to realize that version of the future.
Unselfishness: At the heart of this quality is the realization that MUST come to any true leader – why does one seek to lead? Is it for personal glory, visibility, material gain, power or authority? I would argue that leadership is never about one’s ability to lead – it is always about one’s ability to serve. The mighty Coronavirus has ensured that these are times when all of us will have very few opportunities to be on a big glittering stage, but will have many opportunities to be behind the scenes empowering colleagues and customers alike. True leaders will embrace such an opportunity with unselfish joy in the privilege of being empowered to create impact. They will lead by selflessly seeking to only serve.
Charles Dickens, described a different time in history when he began A Tale of Two Cities with these immortal opening lines – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…’
Today, we seem to be living in times that Dickens seems to have already described nearly two-hundred years ago. With death and ill-health sweeping across the world, it may seem more like a winter of despair than the spring of hope, but remarkable times nonetheless. As the COVID crisis that has engulfed the world continues to hold us under its sway and many despair that we are all stuck on a ship destined to sink, it is incumbent on all of us to be leaders – so that we may embody the qualities I’ve listed earlier to bravely and resolutely set the new sails of hope!