Leadership: Lessons and Limitations
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”
–John C Maxwell, Author, Professional Speaker (1947-)
As I look back, the various leadership positions that I held since my school and college years, in my profession or business or society, I did not seek any of them; it was bestowed upon me. There were occasions when I was made the leader because there were no takers – e.g. President of Rotary Club of Bangalore Koramangala. However, I believed that any position bestowed on me is an opportunity to perform my duties as I had perceived and hence, a process to realise my potential. Thus, it was possible for me to derive fulfilment from my actions. This is continuing even now as I handle some of the service projects either on the Rotary platform or otherwise.
In my earnest view, leadership itself is a talent, which is an aggregate of several traits – being ethical in all actions, having knowledge of the domain in the area of work, being able to communicate well, possessing a high level of emotional intelligence, and showing empathy, to name a few. I picked up the first and the last of the traits – ethics and empathy – mainly from my family environment, but I had to work hard through constant learning and rigorous practice to develop the other traits.
My leadership litmus test took place at a very early stage in my career. Soon after graduating as an engineer in 1973, I joined the Public Sector giant Indian Telephone Industries Limited (ITI) as Research & Development (R&D) Engineer. My team consisted of a Senior Technical Assistant (STA), a Technical Assistant (TA), a Planner, six Wiremen and an Attender. Apart from R&D work, I had the responsibility of assigning work to each of these staff members based on my section’s requirements and review them. At the end of year I had to write a Confidential Report (CR) based on their performance.
On a particular day, I observed that two of the wiremen, Ambrose and Gopal who normally very good friends, were not seeing face to face. When asked Ambrose about this he said that he is not aware why Gopal suddenly decided to stop talking to him. When I checked up with Gopal he told me that is none of my business. Gopal had just then lost his wife and was mourning. I checked with others and learnt that Ambrose was badly in need of some money and had borrowed from one of the draughtsmen in the section.
I took Gopal to canteen in the afternoon and over a cup of tea asked him the reason for being angry with his good friend Ambrose. He suddenly started crying and said, how can he tolerate when his good friend without coming to him, asking someone else money. He said he felt humiliated and hence stopped talking to him. I asked him did he check up with Ambrose why he didn’t approach him. He said there was no need, as never Ambrose had asked anyone else money except him during the last few years. Next day, I asked Ambrose about this and he said as Gopal had recently lost his wife and had incurred lot of expenses, he did not want to trouble him. Hence, he borrowed from someone else. I then called them and said that while both were concerned about the other, it is important to communicate instead of having personal judgements. The matter was sorted out amicably and they thanked me profusely. Even now, I observe that personal equations play an important role in deciding the productivity and quality of the team’s output in a heterogeneous society like ours.
As I entered the entrepreneurial world, what I considered as my strengths – ethics and empathy – did not work well for the business. However, being transparent helped many a times. When I planned my first trip to Europe in 1986, the total cost was working out to fifty thousand rupees. As I did not want to disturb the working capital cycle of the business, I approached my banker to extend a loan of Rs. 50,000/- to be repaid in ten equal instalments. The branch manager was surprised to see such a request. He said that he did not have the power to sanction it and advised me to present the case to the Assistant General Manager (AGM) who would be visiting the branch for inspection on the forthcoming weekend.
When AGM Y. S. Hegde visited the branch, Senior Manager Ramakrishna Vailaya introduced me to him and handed him over my request. I had also provided the current status of debtors and creditors along with my proposal. He glanced through my request and told the branch manager, “It is people like Ravikumar – technopreneurs, who will be the future of Indian business replacing family businessmen” and signed his approval on the request. Subsequently Y. S. Hegde became a very good friend of mine.
As the processes of globalisation, liberalisation, and privatization started taking roots in the Indian economy since 1991, I realised that unless we become part of global supply-chain, survival of the enterprise in the long run will be difficult. Hence, I mooted the idea of formation of a Consortium Export Company to promote exports from small electronics industries to some of my business friends. Clixport India Private Limited was thus founded in 1992 and I worked as the Executive Director for eight years.
My idea of leadership is mostly limited to Small- and Medium-sized enterprises (less than 100 people). Bigger organisations have to be necessarily driven by structured systems rather than just good relationships. During challenging circumstances, brilliant ideas are necessary but the leader’s perseverance and the will to get through the problem is far more fundamental and important. I always found it very difficult to make my board members and partners anchor around my beliefs, values, and principles, though they have helped me to stay motivated.
July 27, 2019 | Ravi 20