Leadership BS : The Search Within

Atul Sethi

Author: Atul Sethi

Date: Sun, 2016-09-04 20:53

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’.   

 

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Comments

<p>Wow ! INSPIRING :)</p>

Very nicely articulated Atul! Yes there is still hope as far as corporate leadership goes:)

<p>Experience put in words and whetted out on a reading. Wow, this is it. Surely the young hopefuls can look forward to a valuable learning.&nbsp;</p> <p>Great.</p>

<p>Having 'worked for' horrible bosses and 'worked with' exceptional leaders I can totall relate with your experience as well this article. But at the same time I thankful to both - my horrible bosses for teaching me not to be like them as welll as inspiring leaders whom I aspire to emulate. Atul, would like to ask you a question (the same that i asked myself) - would you have been a different leader if your boss at Godrej was a better person. In my view horrible bosses are necessary to help us become a better leader as long as we dont turn into them or propogate the BS. The place I am working right now there is a lot of BS leadership but i make sure that BS does pass down to the teams I am leading.</p>

<p>Excellent boss..</p>

<p>Excellent Sir! I can relate to both as I joined Godrej &amp; Boyce after AP :)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>

I worked in a German Multinational company for more than 5 years and had the opportunity to work with 3 bosses in different stages of my career. I feel fortunate to have never had a boss as insensitive as the one described in the Godrej & Boyce example. However, I experienced different leadership styles in the past 5 years. My first boss believed in nurturing youngsters without any insecurity. He believed that no person in the team including himself must be indispensable. He once said to me that,” Managers grow in their careers when they have strong functional skills. Managers become leaders when they have strong people skills for which succession planning becomes crucial.” Under his guidance, I received valuable inputs and multiple opportunities which helped me build my confidence. I was not surprised to see him rise to a Senior General Manager level quicker than others. The reason for his growth is simple. He had a team which functioned smoothly in his absence. I am reminded of the “Generosity Gene” concept which was taught to us in one of our communication classes. Former CEO of GE, Jack Welch, says in one of his interviews that Generosity Gene is a trait which separates leaders from managers and I could relate his views to my first boss. My experience with my next two bosses was to the contrary. Though they were not as brutal as the one described in the article, they were disconnected from what happened at the ground level. This disconnect affected team morale and I was a part of a team which worked in silos. Cohesiveness was missing. Both did not believe in decentralisation or succession planning and were comfortable holding cards close to their chest. Unsurprisingly, when it was time to fill senior positions, these two gentlemen were never considered. As a student of SPJIMR, I have opportunities to learn theory of leadership and learn from faculty with profound industry knowledge. I hope that when I get into a leadership role, I will be able to blend my professional and academic experiences to become an effective leader.

I have had exactly a similar situation in my case while working with one of the largest cement companies in the country, I was responsible for operations for the setting up of a Ready mix concrete plant. I was relatively inexperienced having graduated only 6 months ago. The role soon became a nightmare after my boss started calling me over 8-9 times a day, also from a staff of 12 I was finally left with 4. He would ask me to dispatch orders to a particular customer after I had refused on payment issues, saying he was getting the contract changed. But when the Accounts people would call he would lie and plainly say he never said such a thing. I being too naïve at that point did not escalate it further, till a vendor complained about him to the Company’s HO for asking undue favors. He was fired. I was very impressionable then and this caused to become a very cautious person. I clamped up and made sure everything was in black and white else work stops. I soon got an opportunity with another company where I had a Boss who was just the opposite. It was made sure I have a smooth transition when I joined and the entire team behaved and acted like a family. My boss never had to micromanage me because he saw my drive and knew I was self-motivated. This further boosted my confidence and I began pushing harder. I completely agree on your thoughts and it is imperative that every single employee across the organization trains and supports people around them. Companies today expect people to groom their replacement so that they can move higher up the order. Such interactions among people is what weaves the ‘culture’ of an organization, probably one of the most difficult things to correct once vile.

I have also come across the similar experience in my career as mentioned by Author. 4 years back, I was working in one of the company and was heading the finance department for Maharashtra region for around 1.5 yrs. During this period, I witness to the harassment of office staff by an abusive and aggressive manager. He was always humiliating to all the staff member without any reason. He used to shouting at staff during the team meeting for any small mistakes. He just want to focus on the work to be done without bothering what the team is suffering. Due to such type of his nature, people start resigning from the Company and it was impacting the day to day work. I also left that company after 1.5 yrs. and joined another IT company. The manager of the new company was really good. He was very good and people centric. He had created a very professional environment within the team to motivate each team member. While analyzing the both leadership style, I understand that, when the leader is very abusive in nature, the overall moral of the team goes down and that impacts the deliverables. However, the good leader crate a conducive environment and help to improve the right spirit of each team member.

Sir, thank you for articulating the different facets of leadership as has been described by Jeffrey with some of your real life experiences. It is quite evident that the actual traits of a true leader cannot be found amongst all managers and this becomes all the more evident by their behaviour towards their team members at a professional as well as personal level. I had also experienced a torrid time under my first boss who was more interested in demeaning others and proclaim his superiority above all of us. He simply believed in keeping all of his team members under a tight leash and do his bidding as and when he felt so. He had no qualms about our emotional well-being. During his tenure none of us had any role clarity about our jobs and was left in a totally confused state. Time and again we had tried to portray the same to our higher management but since he was so adept to extract work from us through this approach and meet the organizational targets, no actions were initiated against him. This dearth of any growth under him drove all of us to search for better prospects outside the company and ultimately one by one all of us had left the organization. By the time i had left the company, a sense of realization had dawned upon the senior management over this rapid brain drain from the department. However it was too late to recede the flow and hence the department lost its shine in no time and ultimately it had to undergo a complete overhaul with a new manager in charge. On the contrary my stint under another superior was truly intriguing. The company as a whole was not doing good. However he understood the importance of talent retention within the company and provided the necessary motivation to all of us during this tough period. He was considerate of our work life balance and always thrusted upon working in an unconventional approach rather than using brute force. When such ideas would fall flat, he would be there standing in front to face the senior management and give the requisite explanations. However when our ideas would come through, he would let us present the case to the senior management and get the appreciation. He instilled the notion of self-belief and disciplined approach within ourselves which helped us in shaping our future in a long way. Leaders have the inherent quality to inspire people to harness their true quality and would always have the inherent tendency to lead by example. Even though such cases are rare but as Jeffrey mentions in his book “Such leaders and companies do exist and they are not part of the folklore”.

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