The Dilemmas of Leadership: Pt-1

Who is a leader?

Since time immemorial, the trait of leadership as an important quality of a successful human being has been studied repeatedly. As times have changed, the qualities that represent who a good leader is have also changed. Some qualities of a great leader have persisted, some have been dropped or sidelined and new ones added. All of this to say that determining who a good leader is OR what makes a great leader is not deterministic. It is a function of multiple factors. Therefore, when someone asks who is a great leader? It maybe worthwhile to clarify, under what circumstances? Who is a great leader when an organization/team is sinking in the market? Who is a great leader when leading an army to war? Who is a great leader when rescuing a species from the brink of extinction?

The word ‘leader’, as we know it, comes from a 14th Century English word – “laedan” i.e., ‘ to go before as a guide’. Apparently, during wars, a specific person was chosen to infiltrate the enemy camp and identify all the key posts, men and vulnerable areas to attack. If this person successfully made it back to the home camp, he was then tasked with being at the forefront of the attack guiding the army to all those strategic points. The enemy camp, for obvious reasons, would then focus on taking this individual down. The home camp would ofcourse leave no stone unturned to protect the ‘guide’. This bit of historical perspective really sets the tone to what was traditionally expected of a leader and the team.

If we remove the context of war from modern times or typical day-to-day scenarios, the relevance of the leader as a “guide” still holds true. It is a person who can guide themselves as well as anyone else towards a collective objective successfully. Success, obviously defined by the achievement of the said objective, with as minimal loss of resources as possible. Or in other words, achieving the objective in the most optimal way. Notice how, there is emphasis placed on leading themselves as well as others. The fact that a leader has to lead themselves, though innate, is often glossed over. This attribute is directly related to “Authenticity”. A trait that simply means that an individual’s thoughts, words and actions are in harmony. Seems too idealistic?

Well, I am not saying that not having this authenticity immediately disqualifies someone from being at the forefront. We all display varied degrees of authenticity. But a leader not only has higher degree of alignment, but is humble enough to acknowledge the areas of gap, continuously strives to maintain and increase the degree of alignment or harmony and therefore, naturally wins the respect of the people who follow him/her. This is key – respect or allegiance is not commanded but earned. But do we appreciate this sincerity in a person?

As a crowd, we are so adept at holding high standards on individuals that we want to follow, that we remove the humanistic tendencies from our perceptions of a leader. We demand that they epitomize the pinnacle of everything that is great. Vulnerability is not appreciated – it is a weakness! But is it? And this is where, the subjectivity of the discussion emerges. When is it not just OK, but actually desirable for a leader to be vulnerable and when is it NOT? If a leader has to answer this question, it would require that the person be self-aware and mindful. Let’s talk about that a bit more… time. 🙂

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