Corporate musings

Who is a successful leader ?


There is a whole host of articles, books and research on what makes a successful leader and somewhere am sure what I am about to write also has been covered. So this is my version 🙂

I feel a successful leader can be assessed only after they move out. I know many people may not agree with this. But let me try and convince you. In most organizations, there are legendary leaders, super successful, take the company from $xxx billion to $xxx+++ billion and people love them, their engagement scores are great, they work day and night and on weekends, all the people get growth, the leadership/board loves them, the shareholders are thrilled. Then the inevitable happens… Either he/she moves to a different role or a different company. The farewell is prolonged and many teary eyed team members say good bye, tell her to take them along, give him “touching” cards that pour out all their feelings and finally the leader leaves.

For the first few months, things move along, the ex-awesome-leader is fondly remembered in every coffee conversation, people call her up, the first Diwali card is sent to him etc. There is a huge vacuum and everyone talks of big shoes to fill. Somebody from within the team takes over and this is the time, to test the success of the outgoing leader. If the organization continues to do well or does better, people stay engaged and things become different but better – the outgoing leader was successful. If on the other hand, people are falling into the vacuum left behind and things start going downhill, the outgoing leader was not successful.

Leadership is about what happens after you are no longer there. A true leader is always trying to create a strong pipeline of leaders who take things forward, he is always thinking of the time when he would not be around and getting people to be independent. The beauty of inclusive leadership is that it creates many leaders and the vacuum is felt at a personal level, but not for work. People know what needs to be done and will get on with it. In the command control or coercive type of leadership, things are driven from the top and emerging leaders get no chance to flex their leadership muscle. The unfortunate reality though is, the leaders who leave a vacuum are considered successful in organizations because they held it all together, the ones who think of the future and there is minimal fuss as they exit are considered not so successful. This is also a classic case of rewarding “A” while hoping for “B”. You want a certain behavior but reward an opposite behavior – most R&R programs fail because of this anamoly.

In my view the successful leader is one whose exit is a non-event, because he or she has created a strong second line that goes ahead to do things that are appropriate for the changed context. I have a favorite statement that I keep saying – every leader is like a fist out of water, some ripples may be there as you take the fist out, but the water settles back. And its a fact, no one is indispensable, but it’s a leadership imperative to create a strong pipeline for the future. Jack Welch will always be amongst the most successful leaders not just for having created value upwards of $300 Billion, but for the many many leaders he created who could continue taking GE forward as he exited. Leaving a vacuum is at best an ego booster for the ex-leader !!

Suggested reading –

Are you a level six leader ?
On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B

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4 replies »

  1. Completely ageee with this. Hve been trying to do this as well so that when I leave my current role, there are hardly any ripples. I think people become insecure and that’s why they don’t try and develop the next rung.

  2. Great article and it articulates well with leadership, one thought though is how a leader creates his team and builds his members for transition and quits for some or other reason related to office politics and his team believes that he did the right thing and follows in his footsteps to call it quits – in that case how do you judge the leader ?

    • Yesh, office politics are detrimental to building a great team or great organization. That said, I personally do not like to carry a team wherever I go, though it’s a widespread practise. The fact that a team wants to follow the leader is very flattering, but it brings it’s own consequences and in the new assignment, the leader is not valued as much when he/she brings his/her “own” people.

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