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Thoughts on Leadership

(Comments on the article, “What Followers Want From Leaders” – a Gallup Management Journal Q&A with Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, authors of Strengths Based Leadership – 8th Jan 2009)

On going through this interview I was struck by how organizations and managers struggle with leadership and performance issues, simply because some of the concepts may not have been clearly defined or understood. I intend to revisit some of these concepts from a “CorporateTheatre” perspective. It is important to bear in mind that these concepts and definitions have evolved from the workshop experience and have been consistently reinforced through hundreds of workshops and across thousands of participants. In that sense they can be considered as valid as any formal study.


GMJ: Your book says that followers have four basic needs, one of which is trust. How do leaders build trust, and why is it so important?

Tom Rath: I think trust is primarily built through relationships, and it’s important because it’s the foundational currency that a leader has with his team or his followers.

According to the “CorporateTheatre” experience, Trust is the 3rd Pillar of a Natural Team. (For details please refer to my article on 'Natural Teams' in the same blog.) It need not necessarily be about relationships. It is about trusting that the other person has the same clarity about the same goals and the same commitment to the same success as me.

This involves various elements. One, the goals have to be clearly set. The destination that we need to reach as a Team or an Organization has to be absolutely clear. The journey need not be clear at the time of starting. That clarity will emerge and get redefined often as we proceed. If we expect as much clarity about the journey as about the destination, we will never start the journey nor reach the destination.

Two, it has to be ensured that everybody, irrespective of their role or designation has clarity about the destination. This is the 2nd Pillar of a Natural Team. Defining the mission, and setting the goals are important aspects. Everyone should be clear about what we need to achieve as a Team/Organization over the next 5 years/1year/quarter/month. On this basic platform, each individual must be aware of what is their responsibility on the journey, and also willing to take on additional responsibilities based on situational competence, clarity, creativity, or energy.

Three, everyone involved should have the absolute confidence that once we reach the destination, everyone will win in some way that has meaning and value for them. The reward system should be clear and ensure that individual success, team success, and organizational success are well aligned.

And most importantly, everyone must have complete trust in the other person’s clarity and alignment. This is the function of the appraisal policy. Inappropriate appraisal and reward policies can totally break down a team or an organization into a group of fragmented, stressed out, self seeking individuals.

“CorporateTheatre” workshops also throw experiential light on the fundamental guidelines which need to be part of the appraisal and reward policies to enable trust and alignment.


GMJ: You wrote that compassion is important to followers, but a lot of leaders are hesitant to become emotionally involved with their subordinates for fear that it will compromise the work relationship.

Rath: There’s an amount of risk in building a personal relationship with a subordinate . . . . . .
. . . . . if people don’t have close friendships on the job and if they don’t have a supervisor or leader who really cares about them individually, there’s almost no chance that they’ll get engaged in their work . . . .

“CorporateTheatre” considers two words as no longer relevant in today’s workplace. One is ‘subordinate’, and the other is ‘colleague’. We’ll take ‘colleague’ first. In the old days, when people worked as bus conductors or bank managers from 10 to 5 and after 5 they were poets, actors, painters, dancers, social workers, etc., they had ‘colleagues’ at work and ‘friends’ outside. This was perfectly fine as work was only for livelihood. Fun was after work. One did not need emotional fulfillment from workplace relationships. That need was amply fulfilled by relationships outside.

In today’s scenario where most of us spend most of our alert, energized hours at work, and after-work activity is the occasional outing or eating out, or a movie, we need to find our emotional fulfillment at the workplace itself. There is very little time or energy left after work. The need today is no longer for ‘colleagues’, but for ‘friends at work’. Rath is absolutely right in saying that unless people get this emotional nourishment of relationships at the workplace, it is almost impossible for them to get engaged in their work.

At the same time, the word ‘subordinate’ contradicts this thinking. True, hierarchy is a very real and even essential part of corporate functioning. So also in ‘theatre’. One actor plays the King. The other actor plays the slave. There is very rigid functional hierarchy. The actor playing the slave will not dare to sit on the King’s throne. If they do, the play is lost. At the same time neither actor considers the other superior or subordinate. At the level of the actor there is no superior or subordinate. Understanding this at the level of instinct and attitude, and not just intellectually, is the foundation for compassion. The moment I feel superior or subordinate to someone, compassion no longer exists and I become incapable of either giving or receiving compassion. Compassion for my subordinate borders on patronizing. Creating this relationship at the level of ‘actors’, and not just ‘characters’ is the 1st Pillar of a Natural Team.

Reaction v/s Response:

Conchie: . . . . . . . Yet the reality is, when I put those scenarios to them, they couldn’t wait to react. It’s almost as though they had a visceral need to respond . . .

According to our understanding, and validated by ancient wisdom, reaction and response are two completely different things. Response arises from the creative impulse of being completely available and attentive to the present moment, with all of one’s freedom, energy, responsibility, and commitment. Reaction, on the other hand, arises out of past baggage, fears, expectations, anxiety. To use a metaphor used by the sages,

‘I am hungry. I see food before me. I eat to satisfy my hunger. I am responding.’

‘I am no longer hungry. I see food before me that I like. I eat because I like the food. I am reacting.’

Response is perfectly natural and healthy. Reaction, most often can be counterproductive. My liking for the food comes from the past baggage of having eaten the same food before, or having heard or read about it. There is also the anticipation of the remembered pleasure.

In a responsive state, competencies, creativity, and wisdom far beyond what we carry in our conscious minds become available to us. And when an entire Team or Organization of responsive individuals proceed towards a common destination, the destination as well as the journey becomes immensely enjoyable, fulfilling, and continuously offers new and exciting possibilities, far beyond what had been initially planned for or envisioned.

While this may sound somewhat idealistic, remember that these possibilities have been consistently reinforced in every single workshop. We are dealing here with universal, pure, instinctive human dynamics for growth and excellence.


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