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“Leaders have to make wayforotherleaders”

You cannot build leaders or do succession planning. You cannot train a leader, you cannot educate how to be a leader, Nayar tells Abhilasha Ojha

What do the best leaders do? Why do some leaders fail and others succeed?

The first aspect of leadership is under- standing the job on hand. That is where some people get things wrong. I give a lot of talks where I do this visualisation exer- cise. I ask a person to stand next to a chair and then ask the audience what would they want her to do. Typically the answer is, “sit down”. Then I ask her to stand on the chair and I ask, “What do you want her to do?” the answer is invariably, “Get off the chair.” Now apply this learning as a leader: if you are constantly standing on the chair, gazing down at employees, they will want you to get off; to fail. When lead- ers assume that they are entitled to stand on the chair, they set themselves up for failure. But if you assume that despite your entitlement, you will humbly stand next to the chair, people will want you to succeed. Then comes the second aspect of what leaders do to succeed: If you are standing at the ledge of a building on fire, you decide in 30 seconds whether you want to jump or keep standing. When you jump, will the 100 other people jump with you? The only reason they will is when they have trust in your judgement. To build the trust you have to be that per- son who is genuine, strong, but imperfect and with edges. The moment you are this ‘perfect’ person taking all the decisions, you cannot be trusted. The third aspect is passion. Those like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi have suc- ceeded because they have compassionate virtues. You may not always believe in their decisions but you love and trust

them because even the imperfect deci- sions (looked at from your perspective) have strong sense of conviction, strong passion and drive. Value-based leader- ship, thus, never fails.

How do you distinguish leadership from authority?

Look at the complexity of Krishna’s char- acter in Mahabharata. The decisions he takes on the battlefield or in relation- ships around him. He doesn’t really have the authority, but he enables others. That is leadership. It is his intervention that helped influence — if we believe the bat- tle was real — a world event. The learning for leaders even today should be to study just how he manages to exercise leader- ship without being authoritarian. I wish they were teaching Mahabharata in man-

agement schools. I would love to teach, if

I retire, the learnings from that battle,

apply them in real life. It is a fabulous management book for leaders.

Is it more difficult being a leader today?

Being a leader is more difficult today than ever before because of three reasons. One, people have access to all the information, they are more connected. Therefore, if as

a leader you are dishonest, you can get

caught easily. Two, the Gen Y is opinion-

ated, strong in self-belief, needs to be con-

For them “the job” is not impor-

tant, why and what they are doing is. They may not always be attuned to instruc- tions, which can make it challenging for a leader. Three, the environment is uncer- tain. If you are a leader then you need


self-conviction and deep-rootedness. I remember this story of a village with two trees, one near the river, another a little away from the river. The one close to the river flourished and people climbed

onto its branches to dive into the river for a swim. No one bothered with the other tree —ugly, with a few leaves — but still standing tall. One day a storm came and people expected the lush one to survive. It didn’t because its roots were shallow. The other one had developed deep and strong roots to survive its harsh environs and the storm couldn’t uproot it. It’s a lesson

— in turbulent times, deep-rooted people

survive. That’s the leadership lesson peo- ple sometimes miss because they always want look good, always doing what others want them them to do. When we started our transformation journey in 2005, a lot of people believed

that “employees first” was not too different to what others practiced. Then the storm

— recession — came. We had two choices,

stay true to our conviction of ‘employee first’, or give up like everyone else. The decision not to give up was actually the biggest opportunity in front of us. To give up then by making employees redundant would have meant people never trusting

us again. This was an opportunity to earn in three months the trust that would have otherwise taken us 10-15 years to build. Our deep-rooted philosophy of ‘employee first’ shone brighter in adversity. After 2008, more believers in this philosophy because it had been tested in adversity.

You are saying as a leader you don’t

Meet the trailblazer Vineet Nayar is an acknowledged management visionary and a radical thinker who
Meet the trailblazer
Vineet Nayar is an acknowledged
management visionary and a radical
thinker who developed the company’s
‘Employees First, Customers Second’
philosophy. He says that the manage-
ment’s job is not to lord it over every-
one, but to “induce employees to add
value” in what they call the Value
Zone, that area (far removed from the
CEO!) where the employees meet the
customer. The traditional approach
breeds distrust; this approach, driven
by transparency, breeds trust
He no longer talks “pyramid” but
“sphere” for the way the company
operates, which he describes as a true
democratisation of the workplace
He was conferred with the ‘Leader in
the Digital Age’ Award at CeBIT (the
world’s leading high-tech event
showcasing digital IT and telecommu-
nications solutions), 2011, and the
‘Business HR Champion Award’ at the
European HCM Excellence Awards, 2011,
Ranked No. 2 HR Influencer in India by
Society For Human Resource
Management, India, 2011
Nayar has served as a “Mentor”
(Co-Chair) of World Economic Forum’s
2011 Annual Meeting of New
Champions conference
for Steve Ballmer and doing what his call-
ing was, engaging in philanthropy,
endeared Gates to a lot of people. Third,
Lee Iacocca. The reason I like him is that
he was not afraid to copy someone else’s
idea. He was a leader who wasn’t sitting
on the citadel and saying, “Look, this is
my idea”, unlike the first two examples.
He was in the business of implementing
and transforming the organisation. I
think these are examples of leaders who
have led to successful transformations.
Can true leaders ‘evolve’ from a system?

really have to do things differently in turbulent times?

I am an intuitive leader. I always look for turbulent waters. When there aren’t, I create turbulent situations. If the com-

pany is growing at 30 per cent, I ask why is it not growing at 50 per cent. As a leader, I need to create a burning plat- form. To always lead in turbulent times,

I always put myself in turbulent situa-

tions. That’s where I believe my talent will be best applied. When the water is still, you need per- fection and coordination to move ahead. You need predictability, accuracy and all the conventional management thinking.

The moment the water becomes rough, you need thrust and intuition.

Any global examples in leadership transformation that you have noticed recently?

Yes, Steve Jobs to my mind was an idea- centric leader. He was ruthless in the pur- suit of ideas, so that is one leadership

style. The second leadership style is what one finds in entrepreneurs like Bill Gates. He represents two thoughts — one, you can build corporations through consis- tency in your beliefs; two, you know when to hang the boots and still do some- thing meaningful. Leaving the platform

Leaders are like children. The more you invest in getting them to believe in themselves, the more they shine. As a mentor to an emerging leader, there are only two inputs you can give — self- belief and the opportunity to demon- strate and learn. With a combination of the two, leaders emerge. You cannot build leaders, you cannot do succession planning, you cannot train a leader, you cannot educate how to be a leader. Sending them to MBA programmes is not going to change them much. You can only help leaders discover the pas- sion within and give them opportuni- ties to demonstrate the abilities they have. Leaders emerge and when oppor- tunity comes they grab it. You can see the trajectory they are travelling. Also, leaders have to make way for other lead- ers; that’s the ultimate mantra.

see the trajectory they are travelling. Also, leaders have to make way for other lead- ers;