Sunday, 9 October 2016

Leadership in Action

This article written by me in 2001, was published in the Deccan Herald, a leading newspaper from Bangalore. Please give allowance for the time gap in case readers experience  flavour of an earlier period...

Leadership is a matter of priority and concern for everyone, be it top management schools, corporates or training organizations. It attracts full  attention of reputed institutions like ASCI and IIM as also individual consultants.It is professed with vigour by senior  corporate executives from  public platforms or while  addressing employees. There are no two opinions that leadership is a key single factor that influences effectiveness of organizations.

Yet, the fact remains that in reality little of what is vociferously advocated is translated into demonstrative behaviour in day to day aspects of work. You often hear complaints of leaders (bosses) who prefer to pass the buck, are unwilling to own  responsibility or stand by their juniors when things go wrong and are unwilling to take the initiative to develop those reporting to  them. According to Mr Jimmy Walker, "Indecision is fatal. I would rather make a wrong decision, many of them than build up a habit of indecision.I have known men who build successful careers in spite of many wrong decisions; but never one built on indecision."

Yet we come across many individuals  in leadership positions who more often than not opt for the easier alternative of indecision.Leadership in the real sense is "leadership in action."It is not what we say but what we do that constitutes real leadership.In a career span of many years, employees seldom come across many "real leaders". But the few such leaders, who can be counted on the fingers, could make an everlasting impact on their lives.

During the early part of my career I was working at Bhadigund Limestone mines of  Visvesvaraya Iron and Steel Ltd ( VISL)  as welfare officer, in charge of all personnel and welfare matters at the mine . All of us officers reported to the Mines manager who was the head of the project. He was known for his clarity of thought and clear instructions.From the headquarters at Bhadravathi, the monitoring was done by the Deputy General Manager (Mines), through frequent telephone calls and occasional visits.He was known to lambast officers over the telephone and had a vicarious pleasure in fault finding.

Once, during one of his visits, while we were seated in the Mine's manager's office, the DGM, started attacking me for some action taken by me. Immediately, my boss the Mines manager intervened and said "Sir, he has only carried out my instructions. The mistake is mine.I assure you it will not happen again." Thus, very early in my career I had learnt an important lesson that of "owning responsibility." The DGM who felt powerless before such an officer was heard to lament "What do you do with such a guy? He immediately accepts the lapse and assures that it will not happen again."

It was the year 1989, the year VISL was taken over by SAIL. During the initial stages of the take over, the full SAIL team of the chairman and directors were to visit VISL for the first time. While elaborate arrangements were being made on all fronts, the chief (P&A) picked me to play the role of what he called "Officer in waiting" to the Director (Personnel), according to which I was to accompany the director to all the places he goes during the visit, answer all his queries and be available to make things easy for him in a new environment.Although I did not consider myself cut out for such an assignment, I immediately agreed since this was the first major responsibility that the new chief had assigned. "Follow him like a shadow and be available at arms length" he instructed. Being an important responsibility, I was keen to literally follow the instructions of the leader.

On the evening of the arrival of the Director, Chief (P&A) introduced me briefly and I was asked to report sharply at 8 AM to the guest house the next day. However, when I arrived at 8 AM. I found to my dismay that the chairman and directors had already moved to the dining hall and were seated at the table for breakfast. Since I was to be the shadow of the Director (Personnel), it was important that I also finish my breakfast on time. I therefore went to the corner of the table and sat down uncomfortably. From the strange looks I received from those seated at the table, I felt something was amiss. While there seemed to be annoyance with a trace of anger on the face of the executive director and CEO of our VISL plant,the face of the Director ( Corporate Planning) registered amusement. Around this time my leader, the Chief (P&A) entered the room, looked at me for a moment and hastily went away.

I soon forgot the incident and got fully involved in the activities of the day. I enjoyed myself thoroughly as I accompanied the director and  participated in all the activities that included plant visits, meeting with union leaders, meeting with personnel executives and an evening function organized by the Officers'association. I surprised my colleagues and myself with the energy and enthusiasm in my participation and involvement. Many came and commented on it days afterwards.At night a cross section of the officers was invited to dinner with the top Management team of SAIL.

Towards the end of the dinner, my leader gently took me aside and reminded that in the morning during breakfast, I had sat at the same table with directors."They discuss their personal matters during such interaction"he said.The enormity of the faux pas hit me only then.I felt deep regret at the amount of embarrassment I had caused him.I told him how I was totally new to the role and "had to learn things the hard way."

As I was returning home after a tight, incident packed, exciting day, a flood of emotions passed through me.I was overwhelmed by the gesture of my leader.He had chosen to wait and give the feedback at the end of the day. Had he done it at 10 AM instead of at 10 PM and in a harsh manner, my whole day would have been ruined and I would have gone through the motions as a zombie or robot. Once again, I had witnessed demonstrative leadership worthy of learning and emulation.

Much later in my career, I came across another leader who in spite of reaching the level of  Director (HR), in terms of status, did not allow that to come in the way of always treating junior colleagues with respect. He gave a lot of priority and importance  to learning and personally  accompanied our training team for selecting suitable management books for the library maintained by the department.. A lesser person would have held the activity too trivial to demand the attention and priority of a director. This leader belonged to a class of a rare few whose primary focus and interest was in "doing something"rather than "being something" ( Title/ Designation)

Leadership is a key factor that contributes to the effectiveness of organizations. But it will have to be taken out of the text books and from speeches in seminars and applied in day to day situations. Leadership in real terms is "Leadership in action."


  1. It was a worth read post sir. We all do learn with experiences. Thank you for sharing this.. :-)
    (its PH)

    1. Thank you so much for giving your feedback Prakash!

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  3. An insighful post,Mr Rajeev. I find it fully " on date" despite writeen a decade back. Using an anectode to expalin your point made it effective.

    Certain aspects of leadership haven't changed with time, I think.

  4. Thank you so much Mr Saket! It's wonderful to receive feedback from those who are working in corporates who know the live situation out there...

  5. An excellently written insightful article on Leadership with interesting episodes from your own corporate career . Your keen interest and observation of your leader's behaviour and actions, may have shaped your own leadership skills and role in the later years that helped you to be an effective and impactful leader. I especially liked that bit about your leader - "He had chosen to wait and give the feedback at the end of the day." that demonstrated the true hallmark of a leader. Thanks Rajeev, for sharing this interesting slice of your corporate (leadership) life!

  6. Thank you so much Padmaja. So happy you liked it!