If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Down the Rabbit-Hole

It all started with an article in a weekly Tamil magazine. An article that took me down the rabbit-hole into the Leader-land.

It was the fifth year of my work career and I was asked to take up a lead role to architect and deliver a project. Being new to the role and also feeling accountable for a team, I wanted to ensure that I don’t fail. I started to look around with the hope of finding a secret formula to lead people. Something didn’t feel right with the styles that I saw. Either the lead was imitating a teacher or a parent or a king.

That article, in the Tamil weekly, was about Southwest Airlines and its President Colleen Barrett. I found the title ‘Lead with LUV’ peculiar. How could someone lead with love ? Aren’t they mutually exclusive ? This got me very curious — a curious thirst to unravel the elusive.

What’s Love gotta do with it ?

In the following week, I rushed to my office library, hoping to find the book. And there it was — my portal to Leader-land.

I found stories about how customer facing employees were given more freedom to take responsible decisions. A story wherein a flight staff allowing a well known book author to board the aircraft (without id proof) understanding their difficult situation. Another story wherein the company didn’t apologize to rude customers, putting their employees first. When asked about losing those customers, Colleen Barrett, cheekily replied, ‘We share those rude customers with our competitors’ :)

Nutsy & the Gutsy

Having tasted ‘Lead with LUV’, my mind got itchy. I found another book on Southwest in my office library. It was aptly named ‘NUTS’.

NUTS also told the founding story of SouthWest Airlines and their way of people centric leadership.

Like most of the successful books, I found the authors had made a sequel — named ‘GUTS!’. It had the stories of few other organizations that followed unique ways like Southwest to lead people and yet, be consistently successful. One organization that stood out is Semco.

The man and his company

There is a company that let the employees set their own salaries — yeah, its true. ‘GUTS!’ had the story of that company — Semco. And the weirdly good man running that company was Ricardo Semler.

I was fascinated to find that the company had no HR or secretaries but more surprisingly — no regular managers too. It was hard to believe.

The Maverick and his 7 day weekend

My mind got more itchier — my trips to library after my lunch became a regular routine. To my surprise, I found two books ‘Maverick’ and ‘The Seven-Day Weekend’ written by Ricardo Semler. True to the book’s title Semler was a Maverick — an unorthodox in every way when it comes to leading people. He is the only leader that I admire in the corporate world until now.

Maverick is the story about how Semler slowly and steadily transformed Semco into a truly democratic organisation. For the first time, I came to know of the words ‘corporate democracy’. Somehow it never occurred to me that democracy can be employed in a company. It may be because of the infamous line that we were all repeatedly told from our infancy (in the corporate world) — ‘ You can’t choose your Boss’. Semler questions that — If an adult can choose his/her political leader who rules them, why can’t he/she choose his/her immediate lead in the company?

Semler also explains how wrong it is for the leaders to treat their employees like children. They tend to become protective and possessive. How hate and shock engulf those leaders when their team members commit a mistake or ask for a change. Semler advocates leaders to treat employees like adults by giving due respect to their well grown brains. I know a lot of scenarios pop up in your mind that you feel this won’t work but you got to read his books where you would find stories where all those scenarios are answered.

My favourite line from his books which I often tell my team is,

“It’s better to ask sorry than to ask permission”.

There’s lots to tell about this guy but I will leave it to your curiousness. For a sneak preview, check out his TED talk.

Leader and the Servant

In my journey, I found a style appearing many times — Servant Leadership. When I ran through the leadership shelves to explore on it, I stumbled upon James Hunter’s ‘The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle’ and ‘The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership’ by John Maxwell. Reading both gave me a good understanding of Servant Leadership.

These two books reveal that we have real life servant leaders — our Mothers who hold complete authority over us by diligently serving us. The way she balances kindness and punishment and the way we completely surrender to her authority. As I told earlier, only place mothers may lack is treating children as adults after a point in time.

Another revelation that I had via these books is ‘Why a Leader can’t never be a Mentor of their team?’. A Leader always tries to make a replica of him/her self and unconsciously evaluates their team using the same criteria. Also a leader will try to utilize your skills in a way that the team’s goal is achieved — more like a Team Captain. A Mentor is someone who tries to see your skills and guide you to pursue in that path even if it means to leave the team — more like a Coach.

Love = Leadership

The main revelation from Servant Leadership that will guide me for the rest of my career and life is this,

Love (and Leadership) is patient. is kind. does not envy. does not boast. is not proud. does not dishonor others. is not self-seeking. is not easily angered. keeps no record of wrongs. does not delight in evil. rejoices with the truth. always protects. always trusts. always hopes. always perseveres. ~ Corinthians 13:4–7

This biblical quote as is applies to Leadership. A Servant Leader should possess patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, respectfulness, forgiveness, honesty and commitment.

Unexpected turn and Happiness

My journey took a beautiful turn when the book — ‘Delivering Happiness’ by Tony Hsieh found me as a gift. It had the story of Tony and his company - Zappos that delivers shoes online. Tony advocates on employees’ happiness and organisation’s culture.

And this book turned out to be the rabbit hole for my next journey into the ‘Happiness-Land’. But that’s for another day…

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