I like to begin this piece with a line from Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965): Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Perhaps this realization from the most famous leader in British politics (in world arena, some of his racist and imperialist roles – like his decision that caused the 1943 Bengal Famine, and his failed attempt to launch the so-called May 1945 ‘Operation Unthinkable’ to destroy the then Soviet Union – tainted an infamous dark cloud on his reputation abroad), captures the true spirit of a leader – if not of all humans. Sayings similar like this, dating back to the ancient times have inspired humans time and again during good and bad days. Therefore it is not surprising that everybody has an opinion or suggestion about – what a leader should or should not be. I get pieces of articles about it on almost everyday from professional newsletters I subscribe. If one googles, one would find numerous websites of texts and images on this topic.
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I have selected the shown image (credit: anon) from one of these sources to illustrate the fact that a leader should have the courage to stand alone to spearhead things to move forward. Ah! There lies the keyword – forward – but desirable only when in the right direction! Being forward looking by standing alone is easier said that done however – because it can be highly challenging and scary even for a very strong leader – in conflicts of interests and demands – surrounded most often by adversaries and flatterers. In reality, leaders are surrounded by assistants, managers and advisers – administrative, legal, financial and accounting, technical, and research and development, etc. Decision processes are handled together as a team – with the leader having the power to call the final shot. This is accomplished by delegating and distributing powers – to departments for efficient management – to colleagues and subordinates in matters that can be satisfactorily micro-managed and handled by them – but he or she is by definition responsible for the soundness or unreliability of their deliveries.
Perhaps one can venture to say that most of what one gathers from different sources lack the experience of practical situations or constraints a leader faces – and how he or she approaches and handles them. They rather talk about the general behaviors expected of a good leader – but that is fairly understandable because an organization’s PLAYBOOK, or management manual is unique to each organization, and only a select group is privy to the core elements of these documents. This means that no two leaders act in the same way for a given situation – or that leaders of different cultures understand and operate the leadership role differently – therefore there is no universal prescription for a good leader. Those who stand out from the rest are defined by their ability to understand – by their honesty and dedicated commitments to the causes – and how they deliver in the end to move forward. Let us attempt to understand some of these interesting aspects in brief terms – focusing primarily on the qualities people want to see in a leader.
Writing this piece started when my younger daughter gave me a book to read, The Leadership Mystique – a user’s manual for the human enterprise authored by MK de Vries (Prentice Hall 2001). When reading this amazingly well-written book, one cannot but experience new realizations about the myths and beliefs associated with leaderships. A different but a related aspect to this topic – Governance is posted earlier on this page. I have tried to say there that governance is all about: who makes decisions and what governs decision making? And that a social structure is healthy and sound when GOVERNMENT and BUSINESS ORGANIZATIONS work coherently and collectively to safeguard the nucleus of the social structure – the FAMILY. Because it is impossible to have a healthy government and business without a healthy family.
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Now let us attempt to see: Who is considered to be a leader? What does he or she do? What is the difference between a leader and a manager? Questions similar like these come to one’s mind when thinking about a leader – and the answers may not be as straightforward as one thinks they are. When one talks about leaders – one always thinks about people at the top rank – be it political, business or other organizations. But the fact is that there are people in every rank and file who make a difference in their routine works and capacities – most of these roles are transactional though – but some could be transformational as well.
Surprised? Don’t be. People do so during talks and consultations, in work memos and reports – in analyses and judgments during the decision making processes. This may be more apparent when the two qualifiers I mentioned – transactional and transformational are clarified. The transactional leaders focus on incremental improvements and refinement of existing strategies and methods. They are mostly bureaucratic/technocratic in nature well-suited in a status-quo framework.
The transformational leaders on the other hand, venture to make a difference of significant impact. In doing so, they display outstanding skills of innovative thinking, energy and tenacity. Such leaders are courageous to take significant risks – and develop personal charisma. People mostly think that a leader should be transformational – this expectation becomes more pronounced when an organization or a society appears corrupt, chaotic, inefficient and under-productive.
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Often there arises a confusion about the roles of a manager and a leader – because both belong to the same collaborative club of controlling things in the top hierarchy of governance. The most popular difference cited in literature is: a leader aims to do the right thing; while a manager aims to do things right. Let us attempt to differentiate further: a leader is like an army General – the manager being his or hers Lieutenant. A leader shows the way – a manager follows the guidance working out the details to implement them. A manager is by definition transactional – bureaucratic and technocratic – while a leader is at best when he or she is transformational.
As a further note, people think that government bureaucracy is by nature reactive rather than proactive – in particular when it comes down to providing services to people – it is slow in deliberation processes plagued with dilly-dallying and inefficiency. Perhaps another example would be like this: the justice and the law-enforcement system – interpreting and enforcing law cannot afford to be transformational – it is the lawmakers and political executives who are supposed to be so.
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I have initiated a topic on Engineering Leadership to invoke some discussions among my ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) colleagues (https://collaborate.asce.org). The responses were very interesting. It has come to light that some 25% of all CEOs are in fact engineers. Engineers most often work behind the scene – therefore this comes somewhat as a surprise. But let us not forget – how much leadership prowess must have gone into creating many engineering marvels that we all know and admire. Like me, some other colleagues feel however that engineering students at the degree level need exposure to some liberal arts courses like economics, politics, and social relations – that may prove useful for them to better understand the society they serve – for becoming a leader.
Before moving further, perhaps a clarification of some basic understandings may prove helpful. A leader aspiring to earn his or her role requires certain degree of high mental caliber and competence – shall we say in intellect, smartness and cleverness – to enable him or her to rise above and lead the pack.
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In addition, the mental caliber associated with intellect, smartness or cleverness is not a given or inherited thing – it may correlate to one’s education somewhat but not necessarily dependent on one’s formal academic degree. The caliber needs continuous cultivation and nourishing energized by motivation to maintain the sharpness – in absence one can succumb back to becoming dull.
It can also be argued that any attempt to measure a person’s intellect, smartness or cleverness with a universal stick can be misleading. One reason is that, in this age of specialization, it is impossible for one to have all these mental faculties in every aspect of life, skill or social interactions. In the same vein one can also say that – it is inappropriate to judge mental calibers of peoples of different cultures – for that matter any two individuals by a single measuring stick for the simple reason that each person processes information and judgments differently.
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There are leaders in every conceivable fields and professions – an organization cannot exist without a leader. But to limit the rest of this piece to a manageable length I would like to focus on four types: political leader, entrepreneurial leader, business leader, and technical or scientific leader. The last two are paid employees, while many of the first two are unpaid pioneers at least at the beginning of their initiatives. The leaders are often equated with money and power – while some may stand on a spring board – others may not go to that level until accumulation of many years of valuable experiences. Here I quote Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BCE): experience is the teacher of all things.
Let us say – all these understandings should lead to something. Shouldn’t they? Umm! Here are my thoughts on the definition of a good leader in five attributes – the HICAP (HI CAPtain).
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. . . It was between a boss and a subordinate. Let us name them. The boss is Gamma and the subordinate is Pi. Gamma felt threatened by the smartness of Pi, and was very concerned about his own position and job. He devised a plan and asked Pi to take an assignment to count ships entering into a harbor. He thought that the remoteness of the area and the type of work will kill Pi eventually. To Pi, the implications of his boss’s order never became clear because he was very committed to his work. He took the assignment, and went to counting ships. Pi became very bored with the work, but he was very creative and worked out a plan to make the job more interesting. He started to sort out the ships based on the type, length, cargo, etc. After some time Pi assembled huge amounts of data and developed meaningful graphs and statistics about ships entering and leaving the harbor. After a while, Gamma went to visit Pi to find and enjoy the misery he caused to Pi. But when he met Pi, he not only found Pi in good shape but also in good spirit very eagerly explaining to his boss the transportation behaviors of ships calling the port. Gamma was utterly dumbfounded, but true to his nature denounced the works as useless and garbage . . .
I have not heard the concluding part of this story. Similar stories are told by elders to youngsters in every culture – not to inspire leadership per se but to teach the value of hard work, and to expect obstacles on the way – and most of us get moved by such stories. We immediately feel connected to Pi because we identify ourselves in the role of Pi and think that his hard work and commitment deserve more than the treatment he has received from Gamma.
The story also lets one feel disgusted by the viciousness of jealousy and abuse of power by a person like Gamma. And there lies another very important aspect of leadership – that a leader endowed with power and privileges should not fall into the temptation of jealousy and abusing power. Once reached to the level of power and money, leaders tend to see things through a different lens – and this together with the continuous flatteries of money-and-power-worshippers (to the extent of elevating a leader to the status of a faultless demi-god) and advantage takers could easily distract a leader from his or her goal.
One can always reflect back on experience and history to realize – that intellect and smartness without the sweetness of morality and compassion can turn a brilliant person into a ruthless monster (more in Some Difficult Things). Perhaps there lie the answers to many of our difficult questions. I feel that this piece will remain incomplete without exploring the mind of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945; the 1942 FDR decision – through the promulgation of his Executive Order 9066 to force all Japanese Americans into incarceration camps – just for having ancestral roots in Japan – tainted the image of this American Leader. The cruelty of this decision took an ugly racial color – because peoples having roots in other WW II allied enemies – such as the Germans and Italians in America were given preferential treatment, as they were spared of forceful incarceration. The FDR decision prompted other allied countries such as Canada to follow the suit – in all its ugliest forms) on the confidence defining a good leader: Confidence . . . thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection of unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live.
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Finally, a line from one of the stone-edicts of the Great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (304 – 232 BCE) who went through transformation after a bloody war: My intention is that they (the subjects) live without fear of me, that they trust me and that I give them happiness, not sorrow . . . Sounds too benevolent for an ancient ruler? Well – but if one cares about the long term vision for the welfare and progress (both economic and social) of a country, then the necessity of establishing such a trust becomes very apparent.
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 1 December 2017