Learning to lead
Going down the rabbit hole to find what makes great leaders
Some of the most common ideas turn out to be incredibly deep and layered. Just when we think we have come closer to understanding what it means, we discover new layers we never saw. One of such ideas is leadership. At the surface, leadership is a simple enough concept. In any group of people, some people become leaders and others followers. Leaders have a better understanding of the group as a whole and have clarity on how the group should act. So what makes good leaders? Are leaders born or made? Is leadership permanent or situational?
In some ways leadership is a gift and a curse, and you can’t become a leader if it does not come to you. I was never a leader or a class monitor at school, nor the leader of my neighbourhood gang of kids. My earliest memory of leadership was leading a pack of cub scouts during camp when I was maybe 12. I was made the leader of a team (only for the camp) and the highlight of the camp was a trek, where the majority of the “points” were to be earned. That was my first taste of leadership. I distinctly remember I made sure that no one in my group was left behind by motivating those who were tired and going slow. We were the first group to complete the trek as we came in as one unit and won the race, and were the best team of the camp. It gave me immense pride and satisfaction. My other experience as a leader was leading the football stall at Penn State for our club, AID India. Here too I brought in energy making sure we had enough volunteers every game (by writing creative emails to student groups) and making some inspired moves to position our volunteers at the busiest parts of the stadium, selling the most profitable items and bringing in record revenues. My experience for the football stall was probably the first one where I chose to become a leader.
My leadership at Frappe was more a result of being an entrepreneur. There was no method or process to it and it was my de facto role. After 15 years, I feel the need to build the next generation of leaders. This led me into exploring the idea of leadership deeper. To that effect we did a leadership workshop with 20 people. We started with the hypothesis that the most important function of a leader is to define and communicate a vision. The leader is someone who can see the farthest or has an intuitive idea of some future where they have to lead everyone. The leader must also convince everyone that their vision is the most powerful one and lead everyone towards that. We agreed that the vision must be ambitious, authentic, relatable and inspiring. The vision has to be in between the realm of the possible and the impossible. A great vision is what helps the team go beyond their comfort zone and achieve something they did not think was possible. The vision also has to be authentic and relatable. A vision that seems too far off or too distant from the current reality will also not motivate followers as they are likely to give up even before they start.
As a part of the workshop, we asked everyone to come up with their vision for Frappe and try to pitch their vision to everyone else in the team. Then we held an anonymous vote asking everyone if they saw this person as their leader. People pitched all kinds of vision from the mundane to the crazy. Some people limited their scope to their area of work, some had a vision for the type of organisation they wanted to build, some people linked their vision to fame and recognition, some to solving problems of humanity beyond just software products. Each one also presented their vision with varying degrees of enthusiasm and confidence. Some spoke with clarity, some had their ideas muddled up. Some spoke from their heart, some read a prepared note. Some presented facts, some stories. Some spoke with energy, some with nervousness.
In the end, the results were really surprising and challenged a lot of my assumptions. It seemed that vision alone was not important as we had hypothesised. People did not only vote on the quality of the vision but also the credibility of the individual that presented. Clear and concrete visions had more takers than abstract ideas. Comprehensive pitches were more effective than simplistic ones. The person who did best was someone who presented a very comprehensive vision that covered all stakeholders' interest. It was not particularly grand or exciting but very relatable and achievable. People who shared what kind of an organisation they would like to see got more votes than those who presented outcome based visions. Those who spoke with clarity and coherence got more votes than people who spoke about abstract things. More realistic ideas got more votes than dreamy or ambitious ones.
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) only 35% found me as a suitable leader and I did not land up in the top 25% either. Being the de-facto “leader”, people did not find my pitch convincing enough. Assuming that this was honest feedback, it pushed me into deeper introspection. Am I a good enough leader? Is there something I need to learn from this feedback?
While defining the vision, the first thought that came to my mind was that Frappe should be a globally recognised company, something around our products helping people to do better. Somehow I knew this was only an external truth. There was clearly a deeper truth that was driving me personally as a leader. What I enjoy the most is seeing people breaking the shackles and liberating themselves. It never fails to blow my mind everytime this happens. So as a part of my pitch, I told the team that my vision for Frappe is to find out the ultimate truth. What makes us all unleash our true potential? While capitalism and competitiveness drives the organisation, I believe that real power comes from relentless drive to keep experimenting till you know that the real truth is. The older I have become, the more I have realised that we have been told lies all along. The lies are in place to support the hierarchical structure of the society as it is today. These lies also become the chains with which we bind ourselves. We become slaves of the monthly paycheck. I want every person in Frappe not to work for their paycheck, but experience this journey of going deeper and discovering our true purpose, and then using this power to build something extraordinary.
Many people found my vision too abstract. I wasn’t leading the team to glory. I wasn’t going to satisfy all the stakeholders. I did not have a vision for building people or products. I wasn’t playing by the rules that have been laid down to us. I was asking them to rebel, and not everyone understood the message. The summary of the feedback given to me was that they felt my vision was not clear enough for them. But then I could not lie to myself and come up with a clear vision if I did not have one.
Later I realised that all our lenses of leadership probably miss the point. It is not about the vision or empathy or popularity that makes us great leaders, but that extra bit of energy and inspiration that we have from the rest of the team. If we can tap into that source of energy and keep feeding it to others, then we become good leaders. The energy itself is very situational, based on the type of team, goals, individuals and values. This energy comes from within, driven by our emotions which can range from pride to righteousness. The more we are able to tap into this emotional energy, the more power we can derive from it. It is a bit like riding a tiger. You have to learn to flow with your emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
To those who aspire to be leaders, I think they have to look within rather than outside. The leader is someone who just cares a bit more than everyone else. All of us care about something, but sometimes that thing remains buried inside what others want us to do. Once you go deep into the rabbit hole, you may discover this power. It can come from anything. The desire to be better than the rest, the desire to prove someone wrong, the desire to attempt something no one has. Each one of us has a leader buried deep within us and we need to awaken by finding out where it lives. Can everyone awaken their monster? I don’t know but we will try our best to find out.
Rushabh is a software developer and founder of ERPNext. He usually writes about the startup experience, open source and the technologies he is working on.