I Screwed Up: 10 Lessons in leadership
( He may be down and out for the moment after the defeat in the “ fall” elections of November . But US President Barack Obama, visiting India over the next few days has challenged conventional leadership
This article is from a contribution made by the author to the journal of the Delhi School of Economics, published in August 2010.
I woke up one morning to the best quote, and what was finally the winner of the sound byte of the year 2009. US President Barack Obama , not once, but several times confessed on national television that “I screwed up” , with reference to his nomination of Tom Daschle , Health Secretary who unfortunately ended up being a tax violator. Shoddy due diligence, but it happens. What was truly refreshing though , like driving down a deserted Marine Drive at 3 am in the morning, was his straight- from -the- heart brutal transparency. No pretentions! No justifications! No shrouded in calibrated jargon! I am sure the conservative Republicans cried foul at the usage of the slang term with a sexual connotation, but Obama was ‘cool
But this is Obama’s second staccato-fire. His first was absolutely brilliant, when he termed the financial jack-asses ( the erstwhile over-rated over paid investment bankers of Waterfall Street ) as “shameful” for pocketing million dollar bonuses even as long-term investors went bankrupt, families got wiped out, and the world plunged in The Great Recession . And that too from the bail-out funds from government charity and tax-payers money! What a monumental repugnant act of self-aggrandisement ! It took a honest, bold and a true leader to condemn the preposterous day-light robbery by these flaky fools in pin-striped suits chewing on Cuban cigars, to set the record straight. And while these thick-skinned financial racketeers are collectively protesting, Obama has gone and done the hitherto unthinkable; he has put a cap on their disproportionate salary levels, thus ensuring no subterfuge methods of compensation. Now that’s what you call a real leader; he does the right thing, fearlessly, and without blinking an eyelid.
For Corporate India there some lessons to be learnt from both Obama ( I confess to having initially welcomed him with guarded circumspection and restrained enthusiasm, as I found the hype claustrophobic ) and the home-grown Ramalingam “Satyam” Raju story. Paradoxically enough, even Raju ultimately did say “I screwed up” without choosing the same colorful vocabulary but that was after he had sowed the seeds of India’s Himalayan financial catastrophe .
So instead of giving you blue-blooded, business school sanctified , sacrosanct gyans ( that is the rare prerogative of foreign – educated esteemed Board Members of some IT companies) , let me give you simple down to earth learning from some of the most momentous experiences of recent times:
1. BE BRUTALLY HONEST
Cut the crap! The world is short on patience and verbal jingoism, and playing silly hide and seek games in the corporate boardroom and press conferences. If you have done great work , please do shout from the roof-tops. If you haven’t, don’t sack your PR firm either ( unless you cannot afford them ) . Speak up, even if from the ground floor whose rentals are now on your piling payables. Disclose, disclose and disclose, and do so without fear.
2. SIZE DOES NOT MATTER
Companies have this mindless obsession for being the biggest and all that; it is a fruitless endeavour. Everyone wants to be on a LIST of sorts, and size seems the common denominator of CEO obsession. As the collapse of financial behemoths and others such as AIG , Citibank, Merrill Lynch, GM, Ford , Satyam prove, ultimately their size became their undoing. Sure enough cheap funding can create big scale, but what happens to the key task of managing those multi-product, geographically spread , cross-cultural and complex structures when they are simultaneously challenged? Even Tata Motors defaulted on paying suppliers, and we are not even shocked anymore. And despite the pink papers massaging egos of their advertisers by repeatedly showcasing them , please stop taking those Forbes billionaire lists too seriously. Focus on customers and quality; size will follow almost logically.
3. WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT A ” QUARTER”?
One of the principal reasons why many companies are floundering is because of this self-created pressures of providing Dalal Street a well-spread buffet meal every three months , a staple high calorie, deep fried meal . Companies I think are meant to exist for the long-term, and sometimes projections do go haywire, and unexpected shocks are inevitable. It’s not the end of the world if your stock price slumps because of short-term profit-bookings or cut-loss operations on account of unreasonable punter expectations. Instead, what you should look for are far-sighted investors, and your own business strategy over a sustainable period. I think CEOs over-react to stock analysts and media pressures. Instead, they should show them the door.
4. CUT OUT ” EXCESSIVE” SOCIAL NETWORKING
There is the new culture in town that tells you that you must be seen in EVERY conceivable networking dinner, corporate party , a ET or BT or FT or TT bash. Dump it! In any case, you meet the same old usual suspects mumbling the same ancient incoherent crap. I am not saying business socializing is not important, it is . It is also the cheapest form of brand-building ( especially in these cost sensitive times) , but if over-done, it results in diminishing returns. Why don’t you spend that saved time in mentoring your future leaders, reading the audit report, just calling on your customers, or maybe just driving home early?
5. TRUST YOUR EMPLOYEES FIRST
Good or bad news—– your employees must know about it before that Mr Patel scratching his head at his Fort office or the journalist from those TV channels. CEOs keep repeating ad nauseam-“My employees are my biggest asset”, but actually treat them like their disposable liabilities. If you can’t take your team into confidence, good or rough news, you should quit, you do not deserve to be there; instead start by giving the pink slip to yourself in a white envelope.
6. CREATE YOUR OWN GOLD STANDARD
We have an obsession with all things alien, western, esoteric, heavy-sounding — we are constantly looking for role models to ape, concepts to implement, buzzwords to crow, fads to follow. It is time we acknowledged that while being adaptive to global ideation is being smart, we are distinctive, and perhaps need to create our own case stories , business models, best practices, and performance standards. As a company, each one can have its own defining values, work culture and management principles. The best benchmark is not your competition, but where you want to be.
These days the giving away of ” Awards” is become a real joke. Essentially it is a brand-building agenda of the host, a sponsored event, which also becomes a revenue generating model, a double-edged sword. It is a farce. Satyam got the Golden Peacock ( poor bird) for corporate governance , for god’s sake? So if you are not a great place to work or truly admired, but only got the award because you filled up the forms with politically correct information before the due date expired, don’t accept it. Instead of becoming a motivational tool, it will be a long rope with which you will end up conjuring some death-defying stunts that may unfortunately succeed. Create your own standards, and reward yourself and your team. You need no external endorsement.
7. INVEST IN ETHICS AND VALUES
In the final analysis, it is your openness, transparency, goodness, the whole set of work values and business ethos that will help you through difficult times. But this must start at the top, leaders must set the pace, practise what they preach and teach ( unlike Enron which had a voluminous book on ethics) , and set exacting standards of fair-play. And don’t get frightened if you made mistakes and “screwed up”, it’s human to do so. Your journey to your destination will not end. The basics usually matter the most, they are the bed-rock of endurance.
8. AVOID THE DEADLY “E” WORDS
Many leaders sink in a cesspool because they get “emotional” about their work-place. “Ego” worsens the situation considerably. It is a deadly toxic combo. The two drive several business barons to unknown limits to either grow, maintain or salvage their enterprise. You know, one can understand the involvement, passion, sweat and toil and tears and all that, but frankly, in the end in business you do not control the outcomes, the environment, the future. It is important to let go, take things dispassionately and not be too harsh on oneself. The world forgets. More importantly, they also forgive. Better still, we move on, with the comfort of the knowledge that one did the best one could. And forget the neighbor’s new car, you may not be aware of his repayment capabilities. Clean and maintain your own jalopy like a black stallion.
9. BE READY FOR THE MOST UNEXPECTED
There are volumes of work and strategies on crisis management, but when it comes to the crux, we are not just caught napping, we are usually comatose. Leaders of The modern Great Recession era ( 2007 – 2009 and still continuing in some places) need to be conservative in their projections, and realistic about its potentiality . Ceteris paribus is good just for micro-economics for higher secondary schools. Risk-assessment is not just to satisfy the audit committee, but to mitigate against unforeseen quirks of nature and some man-manufactured disasters of epic proportions. Essentially, we should not look too stunned when suddenly surprised. It is easier said than done ( which is why I am writing this piece) , but leadership is not everyone’s cup of tea or coffee, my dear friends. In calm waters, everyone is a good captain. When you see an iceberg, the end does not have to be ‘titanic’ .
10. HAVE FUN: LEADERS ARE ALLOWED A LAUGH
I think leaders take themselves too seriously ; they try hard to appear to be constantly engaged, value every second of their time as if the world will stop revolving when they take a loo break, and speak with the gravity reserved for making funeral speeches. Lighten up, folks, it’s all right to crack a smile, you hurt no one in the process. And with or without you, the business will thrive, everyone will come to work, and life will move on. Who knows, the customers may even rejoice, and your employees will break into a salsa ? Frankly if you are not having fun despite the house-car-club-bonus-PR-stocks deal, clearly you have a problem. Remember, he who laughs , lasts.
Start by being honest to yourself; that’s a great first step. Practise saying this before a mirror every day ” I screwed up, I screwed up, I ———“. Because you will. But when you do, you will not be a chicken. You will be a leader.