Our Dean’s ability to come up with interesting ideas that actually work led me to read the book ‘Leadership BS’ by Jeffrey Pfeffer in less than 16 hours in what was a ‘no pit stop’ mode and in the face of a lot of angry posturing by the family on what was supposed to be a lazy and relaxed Sunday. Jeffrey has done a splendid job of producing an ‘in your face’ book which rubbishes all notions of how leaders behave as portrayed in various leadership trainings, textbooks and anecdotes and actually shares the ugly side of how leaders in the corporate world handle their responsibility.
For someone who has spent two decades in the corporate world in India’s best companies in diverse industries and who is a recent convert to an academic, this book had me reliving my own encounters with leaders in the corporate world. Two particular experiences one during my first job, after MBA, in Godrej & Boyce and the other during my tenure in West Bengal with Asian Paints flashed across my mind. These two experiences happened within a five year time frame and hence the time period bias did not have any significant influence on the outcomes.
In the Godrej case, I and scores of my other colleagues were witness to the horrors unleashed by an abusive and aggressive team leader who was given a free hand by his own boss who was operating from a large glass office within 20 feet of the battlefield and who chose to play the typical ‘Nero’ role. This abusive team leader was particularly harsh on a new management trainee and the office was often witness to scenes of him berating and humiliating the poor soul. The team which comprised of many management school pass outs and long serving graduates had tried in every possible way to air its displeasure and disconnect. The complete lack of humility, a selfish approach focussed on ‘results at all costs’ and many incidents of trust betrayal crushed the team morale and created a very disturbing first encounter with the corporate world for those of us who were fresh out of college. We experimented with everything from out of office meetings aimed at devising ways to manage the environment to creative means of getting the super boss to show some spine and intervene to trying every possible trick to save the ‘threatened’ lot in the office who were not the team leader’s favourites (and man, the list was a real long one). Unfortunately nothing changed and to cut a long story short, the management trainee was forced to resign. I also opted to resign in protest and had to let go what was otherwise a very good role in a company which is known for being a humane and fair employer and amongst the best corporate workplaces. My first experience of corporate leadership had left me disillusioned and I must confess that I would have given a thumping approval to Jeffrey’s characterisation of leadership in the real world.
In the second instance I was the regional head at Asian Paints in West Bengal which was the only region in the country where we were battling decades of underperformance in a very challenging environment. We were a distant third player in the State in stark contrast to our All India market share of close to 45%. We were battling a unionised sales and admin team, multiple lockouts in our godowns (triggered by our friendly competitors) and a deep sense of frustration about how the company image in the eyes of the channel partners and the consumer was being badly tarnished. I in this case had the opportunity to work with a boss who personified what great leadership is all about.
In a period of 20 months, operating with a very competent leader and one who was deeply authentic, humble and selfless (@Jeffrey: Such leaders and such companies do exist and they are not part of folklore), we were able to carve out a remarkable turnaround story. From path breaking innovative customer centred approaches to developing a strong and motivated sales team to creating an environment of trust and authenticity, I was a part of and also witness to a transformation that helped us generate a compounded growth rate of more than 20% for 10 straight years, lead the company to a strong leadership position and more importantly create a team of committed employees who have gone on to create and lead successful teams in different organisations over an extended period of time.
My Asian Paints experience stated above transformed me as a person and a professional. I have realised that great leaders do exist and they do operate from the core characteristics of authenticity, deep commitment to the team and a largely selfless approach. The media bias towards highlighting all that is broken and the existence of a real time information world is projecting far more intensely the failures and the rogues amongst corporate leaders. I have encountered leaders who belong to the pages of Jeffrey’s book but I have also seen so many more who have at their core the stuff which creates inspiring results and stories.
As a teacher at a B school which focuses on generating value-based growth and which deploys innovative pedagogy tools to create corporate leaders who practise ‘conscious capitalism’, I operate in an environment which is committed to creating future leaders who believe in being the change and personify all that a deeply authentic leader and person can achieve. To that end through this piece written on the eve of Teachers’ Day, I reiterate that all darkness that exists is just the absence of light and our job as teachers is to strive to create those warriors of light who can eradicate the darkness at both corporate and society level. Jeffrey’s book will serve as a handy guide to let the students know what not aligning with the ‘true north’ and core values can create. But I will lace the narrative with honest stories of leadership from all walks of life that have the power to inspire one and all. And in the process take a step towards leaders who have the conviction, courage and commitment to ‘Be the change we want to see in the world’.