Leadership qualities

There is renewed interest and a great deal of discussion these days in public fora (including LinkedIn) to determine the attributes of a good leader, how to become a leader, differentiate between a boss and a leader etc.  As times change, leadership roles have to adapt to the new environment and the evolving regulatory and governance practices.  Institutional cultures get shaped by new leadership and conventional norms from a few years ago might not be acceptable today.

It was by sheer chance that I recently came across an old clip on YouTube dealing with Leadership.  It is a Keynote address delivered many years ago by the first Indian Field Marshall Sam H.F.J. Manekshaw at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay (now Mumbai).  As the former Chief of Army Staff and a commander of troops for many years, General Manekshaw was a distinguished personality, “a gentleman and an officer” although he readily admitted to not being a scholar, having not enrolled in a college!  Sam was an upright soldier, a principled gentleman and a much-loved leader of men under his command.  He did not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise and consequently had to suffer ignominy for standing up to his vacillating or incompetent political masters and superiors.

Retired Field Marshall Manekshaw’s extemporaneous speech (almost an hour long) offers invaluable insights on Leadership qualities, embellished by supportive anecdotes from his lifetime of service to India.  The clip is linked at the end of this blog but I have attempted to provide a summarized transcript for a quick read (to accommodate short attention spans and busy lives…).

Sam “Bahadur” (the Brave, as he was nicknamed fondly by his troops) opens with the comment that while some say leaders are born, in his opinion any person with reasonable common sense and decency could be shaped to become a leader.  He highlighted the following key qualities essential for leadership:

  1. Professional Knowledge and Professional Competence.  “Professional knowledge is the sine qua non of leadership”.  Knowledge has to be acquired the hard way and kept up through continued learning.  Most people, on assuming any kind of power or authority start to feel they are the repository of all knowledge.  To lead, one must continue to learn and remain competent.
  1. Ability to make up one’s mind, take a decision and having done so assume full responsibility for it. He states that an act of omission is far worse than an act of commission; while the latter could be rectified, there is no remedy for the former.  He adds that a person usually doesn’t take a decision because he lacks confidence which, in turn, is due to the lack of professional knowledge and competence.  Sam talks about his “Maneckshawism” that advises procrastinators “if you must be a bloody fool, be one quickly” and just get on with it!
  2. Absolute justice and impartiality. No man likes being punished.  Yet, they will accept it if they know that every man who commits that type of crime gets the same sort of punishment.  They may not like you, but they will respect you for being fair and just.
  3. Moral and Physical Courage. When addressing soldiers, the Field Marshall said he would focus on physical courage; however, he places emphasis on moral courage.  It is the ability to distinguish right from wrong and be able to stand by a decision, irrespective of pressure arising from what the others might say or do.  A “yes” man is a disgrace and must be shunned.  Such a person may rise high but will never be a leader; he will be used by superiors and disliked by colleagues.  In talking about Physical courage, Sam highlighted that fear is a natural phenomenon like hunger and sex.  However, he added it is one thing to be frightened and quite another to show fear.  A leader must never show fear.  Physical courage is also essential to leadership but must not morph into foolhardiness.
  4. Loyalty.  It is a two-way thing; we expect loyalty from subordinates and colleagues, we also have to give loyalty back.
  5. Management of people and resources. Leaders must have the ability to be stern while retaining a human touch, the gift of the gab and a sense of humour.  A leader must be able to lift someone who is down and out, from their despondency and also have the ability to assess and make good use of men and materials.
  6. Discipline.  The Code of Conduct for decent living in society has been passed down from times immemorial and continues to be refined as cultures change.  For Sam, non-punctuality is an act of non-discipline.  He believes “Freedom” does not give us the right to become ill-disciplined, as this in turn leads to other negative attributes like corruption and pollution etc.
  7. Character.  It is not just about being honest and truthful etc.  A true leader must know who he/she really is.  It is important to stay true to one’s self and not allow fans, sycophants and hangers-on to give one a false sense of self(-importance).

Many good leaders in all spheres of life have influenced and shaped me.  My father was the very first icon in my life – upright, principled, honest and a generous and caring man, whose family extended beyond the homestead to encompass all those who worked for and with him.  An uncle, a retired General and the Engineer in Chief of the Indian Army has been another role model.  More recently, an executive that I had the good fortune to work with, epitomizes a great Leader.  He dealt with humans and not job titles, always had an open door to his office and mind, welcomed new ideas and counselled anyone who sought assistance, was firm and gracious in equal measure and continues to be loved by one and all.

Please take time to listen to the late Field Marshall; hopefully, you will find some useful nuggets.   Look around and spot a leader you would wish to emulate.  Good luck!


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