Briefly describe your journey until now. Have you accomplished what you wanted or still have a mile to go?
I have been a corporate executive from India’s financial services sector with an extensive experience in guiding start-ups, serving on boards and leading business initiatives in large organizations, such as the LIC of India, Reliance Group of Industries, Reliance ADA Group and Star Union Dai-ichi Life Insurance. Being a thinking manager, my passionate intellectual curiosities have often led me to challenge established practices and systems, leading to product & process innovations and improved business outcomes.
As an individual, I have always tried to move out of my comfort zone whenever I found it to be too cushy. That’s how I left a comfortable job as the Head of LIC’s largest and most profitable Division to start a life insurance company in the Reliance Group. Once this company too started flying in the high skies, I joined an Indo-Japanese green-field start-up venture to do something new.
And now, I have moved into an altogether different space as a full-time author. Even though, I have published over a dozen e-books, there’s a new learning every day and I’m enjoying every moment of it. This journey has just begun and I have miles to go, and miles to go.
What is your book “Age of the Imperfect Leader” all about?
My book, Age of the Imperfect Leader advocates a disruptive approach to leadership. It is practically a myth-buster that questions the expectation from leaders to be perfect and infallible. It also challenges the current leadership development models that mandate a set of leadership traits and expect everybody to master the same. The book points out that since human beings are essentially imperfect creations, it is futile to expect leaders to be perfect. Worse still, such a quest for perfection promotes more mediocrity than excellence. While our weaknesses do get marginally improved, our strengths remain drastically under-developed.
It’s not without reason that today we find a crisis of leadership in all the four pillars of society – government, business, media and NGOs. Trust in leadership is going down day-by-day and people are asking, “Where have the leaders gone?”
The book makes a simple assertion: leadership doesn’t arise out of your perfection; leadership emerges when you apply the formidable strengths inherent within you to address the challenges before you and your organization. It therefore, goes on to suggest that instead of trying to overcome your weaknesses, you should rather focus on your strength and hone it up further through training and practice to develop them into your expertise. It’s when you apply your formidable strengths to address the challenges before you that you emerge as a leader.
Citing real-life examples of a number of leaders across ages, geographies and cultures, the book demonstrates how leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and countless others have brought about radical transformations in the lives of people around the world. They were able to do so even in the face of their conspicuous weaknesses. They owed their success to the admirable strengths they possessed; their weaknesses looked simply irrelevant in the wake of their acknowledged strengths.
Emphasizing upon leadership as a group activity rather than individual charisma, the book also emphasizes upon the need to distribute leadership across the length and breadth of the organization. It further maintains that in the current VUCA world, team-work is the way forward for leaders. To be successful in today’s knowledge economy, they need to give up the romance of leadership and create a synergy between their own unique strengths and those of their team-members.
Who according to you are the “Imperfect Leaders” and why you have called the present age as the “Age of Imperfect Leaders”?
You see, being human, leaders have been imperfect all across ages, each having their own strengths and weaknesses. However, till the other day, they followed the earliest model of leadership known to mankind, Command and Control. This style of leadership demanded that for the leaders to ensure obedience, they must be seen to be perfect and infallible. As a natural consequence of this, leaders were drawn to hiding their weaknesses and creating a halo of perfection and infallibility around them. The relatively opaque and stable economies of yester years as well helped them sustain this image.
However, in today’s fast and transparent VUCA economies, marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, any attempt to appear perfect and infallible would not only be disastrous for the leader, it would be counter-productive for the organization as well. In the globalized knowledge economies of today, products and solutions are created by multi-location teams of experts, collaborating with one another. Therefore, no one person, sitting at the top of an organization, can be able to command and control his team and deliver results.
The imperfect leaders of today represent a new generation of leaders who willingly accept their vulnerabilities and shake off the psychological pressure of looking perfect. While they build their leadership around their formidable strengths, they remain comfortable with their natural weaknesses. In fact, they convert their weaknesses into an opportunity by building teams with complementing and supplementing skills and expertise. In a way, they bring about a strategic shift of focus from the personality of the leader to the needs of the organization. In a way, the old order is dead and gone and we are celebrating the advent of the age of the imperfect leaders.
Who are the imperfect leaders? If you look around, imperfect leaders are shaping our world today, some of the most shining examples being Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick, N R Narayana Murthy and many others. All of these leaders have glaring weaknesses, which are well-known to the world. However, instead of being bogged down by their vulnerabilities, all of them have utilized their astounding strengths to bring about a transformation in the constituencies they represent, so much so that their weaknesses have become irrelevant. It is the same story down the leadership ladder all across the world.
As John Peter Zenger puts it, “Great leaders are not defined by the absence of weakness, but rather by the presence of clear strengths.”
What is the most fulfilling part of writing this book? And what is the most challenging?
At a personal level, it’s a milestone well-crossed. Hence quite satisfying! But more importantly, it is an intellectual fulfilment of putting across my ideas and providing an alternative approach to leadership. It is a truth which leadership experts have not been ready to admit and express. Hence, my effort has been to correct the misplaced perceptions about leadership and ignite a course-correction.
On the other side, the biggest challenge has been putting forth a disruptive idea and questioning the well-entrenched model of leadership, which has been widely accepted and practised. Fortunately, the book has been received very well in the market and has received critical acclaim from practicing leaders across the leadership spectrum.
Apart from the title, what is unique about your book?
This book is an attempt to bring about a course-correction in our approach to leadership. As a management professional, I have been distressed to see the dichotomy between leadership theories, propounded by the academia and the actual leadership practices on the shop floor. No wonder, our leadership development programs end up promoting more mediocrity than excellence. My purpose behind writing this book is to highlight the yawning gap between the theory and the practice and bring about the much-needed correction so that the new-age leaders could adapt to the change and address the challenges facing them with dexterity and confidence.
Would you like to share some writing tips with our readers and aspiring writers?
The writing scene in India is blooming up with a lot of new writers coming up and sharing their stories and messages. I would like to share a few words of wisdom which find a place in my book as well:
Nurture the Tiny Buddha Within: Hidden within everyone’s life story, there is a tiny Buddha waiting to enlighten the world. You need to keep the Buddha awake, decipher his message and share it with the world outside.
Be Yourself and Believe in Yourself: For your story to sound authentic, you must tell it in your own voice. When you draw the story from your own life and tell it in your own voice, it not only sounds more authentic and passionate, it also enhances your commitment to the message you are sending.
Get on the Helicopter: Most of us get bogged down by the weight of our daily routine so much that we are hardly able to lift our head to see the big picture. Get on to the helicopter so that you are not only to able to observe the trees but you are able to have a panoramic view of the forest as well. When this happens, you would be able to ask questions and seek answers, which will enable you to develop your perspective and formulate your message to the world.
Discover the Icebergs: Icebergs are deceptive; what is visible above is only a fraction of what is hidden below. In a way, human mind is akin to an iceberg; a small part becomes visible through our speech and action, but the vast sphere of our inner self remains hidden from the outer world. As a writer, you must endeavor to uncover the iceberg, the hidden self of your characters to understand what drives their thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Passion & Perseverance: When passion and perseverance are combined with a purpose, you develop grit, which is critical for success. In your writing journey, you may often be faced with obstacles and even failures. Don’t let them deter you; it’s your journey of self-discovery. Remember, the people who change the world are not the only ones with vision and passion. What sets them apart is that they learn from failures and persevere in their dreams. They do stumble once in a while, but every time they stumble, they make it a part of their dance.