What are the keywords for leadership? What practices are needed to build and lead a great organisation?
In 1981, the economy was still closed but a few companies were beginning to make computers. They believed that computers would transform the world. The constraints, however, were also becoming clear. The talent to run computers did not exist.
Elsewhere, on international jaunts, company chiefs would meet their collaborators and hear about cutting-edge applications they did not know how to replicate in Indian conditions. These two gaps created a very simple mission statement for NIIT: bring people and computers together successfully. The question was: how?
Organisations and Inspiration
Organisation building does not necessarily occur only in start-ups. It is about being entrepreneurial, whether in a large organisation, in a government department or in a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). You could be someone who wants many more degrees of freedom or you want to set yourself free and do something new. Irrespective of where you are building an organisation or innovating on organisational forms, there is consistency in the underlying principles of leadership.
The first task of the leader is inspiration. The first and perhaps the only job for a leader is to inspire people in the team. Successful inspiration is predicated on the reality that any team has more potential than all of the team members aggregated. The leader is one who can inspire others to believe in a vision bigger than what they can create for themselves.
If the team member says, I can jump five feet, the leader says, I am quite convinced that you can do seven and half. The target has to be plausible. It should not be laughably ambitious. The team member must be forced to think — does my leader really believe that I can do more than five? That is credible leadership. Inspiration is about imagining something bigger than others in the team, making it sound just a little bit beyond the reach so that it is fun to make that jump. It is about giving people the confidence that it is worth doing.
Oscar Wilde once said: we are all in the gutter but some of us are seeing the stars. A leader is someone who helps people to see the stars.
Managers versus Leaders
Managers have tasks, resources, goals and objectives. Managers optimise. Managers see their constraints in a well-defined way because they are held accountable through goals, stakes and incentives. Leaders maximise. Their tendency is to destroy the boundaries, to look beyond.
As you move up the management ladder, you demonstrate that you can do well with the tools of management. When you wear the hat of a leader, the first thing is to recognise that you maximise, not optimise. Your ideas have to go beyond what people believe are possible.
The book Super 30 is the inspiring story of a young man. It is a story of extreme hardship and a very, very powerful desire to make a difference. It is about a young man’s ability to tell a story that people with very poor education can believe. Not only can they do a little better, they can truly aspire to the stars.
To say that there is unlimited potential in people sounds like platitude. What the Super 30 story tells you is what people with really no opportunity can achieve. The starting point is that Anand Kumar got them to believe that they were capable.
Building that confidence, getting people excited is what inspiration is about. It is the stuff of the heart. Emotions are the key. Dreams are outlandish. Achieving them seems unbelievable. What distinguishes leaders from managers is that leaders inspire. This is first role of the leader.
From Inspiration to Aspiration
The second keyword is aspiration. This is the effect on the members of the leader’s team. In Super 30, the children ask, can I go to IIT? Is it possible? Once that emotional excitement is started, half the battle is won. Aspiration is also a thing of the heart. It defies logic. Optimisers by design cannot encourage it.
The first movement from managing to leading is in the dimension of emotions. It is a dimension of irrationality. It is not stupid but it is beyond rational.
NIIT has done a number of projects like the Hole in the Wall experiment in 1999. The idea was to make a hole in the wall and put in a computer connected with internet. Children would begin to play with it. They started doing stuff such as analysis with cameras. The hypothesis was that children given unlimited access to a connected device would be capable of teaching themselves. The hypothesis was that they would not need a teacher. The children were soon doing things that NIIT was teaching in the classroom. NIIT’s chief scientist joked that it was a solution that would make NIIT’s whole business irrelevant, because children can learn themselves.
What was remarkable was the aspiration of the kids at work. You can watch YouTube videos that show how young children help and motivate each other to do what others cannot do.
Recognising Achievement and Potential
What are the practices that go into such teaching? One of them is recognition. How is recognition handled by a team? How do you give positive feedback? The challenge lies not just in the conventional scenario across the table where you recognise that someone did 10 percent more. How do you recognise potential in front of peers?
Starting in 1989, in multiple locations, the biggest part of the NIIT annual day has been recognition. It includes many types of recognition for many different accomplishments. Everybody comes in starry eyed, wanting to get that recognition or alternately, the inspiration from peers to determine to do better next year.
Inspiration and aspiration are the interplay of leaders and followers. You are a leader if you have followers. You cannot force someone to become your follower. When Gandhiji went on the Dandi march, people followed.
As a leader, you are constantly pushing the imagination of each of your team members to get them to believe that they can do more. They follow because they think that you can get them to do more than they are capable. Recognition by the leader really brings out an enormous amount of energy.
When this interplay is happening, people are beginning to wake up to possibilities in themselves which they did not recognise. They are encouraged to start saying, I can jump seven feet. But how? The ‘how’ question is a rational question.
The keyword at that stage is respiration. Not respiration for the lungs but respiration for the mind — freedom to think. Respiration is about building organisation that are open.
One practice is for the leader to make themselves very vulnerable to the followers. The follower should be very comfortable in challenging the leader. Again, managers are very uncomfortable with that because optimisation does not allow disturbance.
Leadership has consequences. But team leaders can address the issue of work-life balance. It may be a small team in the beginning and then a larger team. Leaders cannot go beyond their range of influence at a point in time. But perhaps the example inspires others. This is leadership as well.
NIIT was one the first companies to offer paternity leave in 1983. It used to offer a dating allowance. The first of January was Granny Gratitude day to get a cake and spend time with your grandmother. NIIT still allows employees to take holidays on their birthdays. These initiatives aimed to get employees time for themselves and their families. The advice is to do it at your level and hope that if you do something great, others will emulate it.
You have only one life. In this life, you have responsibilities to others and responsibilities to yourself. There is so much that human beings can do.
A great institution enables people to figure out what excites them. The odds do not matter.
Do not worry about the world. Worry about what makes you feel excited. Then you can dream audacious, funny, crazy dreams. That is the starting point. Otherwise, you are chasing somebody else’s dream.
(Note: This is an edited transcript of the lecture delivered by Rajendra Pawar at Equinox 2019 at the Indian School of Business)