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Wednesday, September 13, 2000

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Bossless leadership

You don't have to be a bully to lead!

YOU'RE accountable for getting a project done, and you need assistance and cooperation from a number of people. There is a gap, however, between your responsibility and your authority level. Maybe you aren't high enough on the totem pole to tell people what to do, or maybe even if you are, command and control is just not your style. How do you get what is known as a `buy- in,' cooperation and assistance from people who don't report to you? No matter how high up the corporate ladder you are, you will find yourself interacting with groups of people that you need to influence without throwing your perhaps insubstantial weight about. They could be peers or higher-ups from your own company, people from other companies, or even people that do report to you that are super-talented hotshots and prima donnas that simply do not respond well to orders. Many projects are undertaken by temporary, cross-functional groups or ``swat teams'' that are put together solely for the purpose of the project, without disrupting the company's organisation chart.

People forget that leadership is, primarily, service. If you are not a person that fulfils a need for the company, or provides something they need (providing information, representing people and projects to outside parties or higher-ups, a particular skill, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of security) then you have no business being a leader, despite commanding a leadership role in the company. You must be known as a person who works hard on behalf of the group, knows his stuff, does his homework, plays fair, and honestly provides information and admits mistakes. Having these qualities will not instantly make you a leader, but NOT having these qualities will instantly take you out of the running! If you have the above qualities, and can follow some of the following steps, you could be as (or even more) successful with a ``volunteer fire department'' than you could ever be with an actual staff.

Hack hierarchy

Whether the person you need to influence is the CEO or the security guard, do not look at that person as a function of the type of vehicle he drives to work; or the impressiveness of their paycheck. Excessive upward or downward communication will only get you marked as a yes-man. Forget the person's position, and do not ride high on your own status. Focus on what you need from him.

I was accountable for creating a system and procedural protocol at a large media house not too long ago. The people I needed information from were VPs, directors of affiliated company businesses, and so forth. I had my doubts about whether or not they'd listen to me since I was head of a division that they had neither heard about or had been consulted about. They seemed to have their own egos and had priorities where I didn't figure. I was fortunate that I knew what I had to do. I studied their departments, and talked to people who had interacted with them and who were aware of their characteristics. I met them, and focused on the single area of commonality. I was surprised with the cooperation and assistance I received. Many of these very senior people later told me my enthusiasm and focus was what did the trick.

Avoid issuing fiats

B-schools talk with words of overweening awe about deadlines and accountability. While not sneering at the emphasis, my experience of seeing forced deadlines or pressured accountability, has always thrown up more harm than good. It is paramount to have a clear idea of your requirements. You need to be aware of the specific tasks that need to be done and the deadline by which to do them. I have noticed that in actual fact one has best results when the people feel as if they have a say in the matter. Forcing them to provide a deadline often ends with the biter getting bitten himself! A request for cooperative suggestions will get the work done faster and better. They must see the value of the job in relation to themselves (in whatever terms of benefit to themselves they may think about for themselves).

This is probably best explained by example. With a project to accomplish in a hurry, Govind is the one person in the company who has the skill set needed to get the job done. You may be Govind's boss but his assigned duties are pressing on him to deliver as well.

Example 1

Delivered by memo, e-mail, or by walking into Govind's station: ``Govind, I need you to do XYZ in two weeks.''

Example 2

Delivered over coffee: ``Govind, I wanted to talk to you about this job since I know that you have the specific skill-set in this area to get it done despite your delivery schedules. This job is as important as your own deliverables at it will influence VC funding. I'll give you the low-down on the job, just help me get it done in the next three days.''

Although example 1 takes five minutes, and example 2 might take thirty minutes, and probably the pain of getting to the coffee machine, the results are remarkably different. In Example 1, Govind is likely to whine about his own overload, the insufficiency of his team, and fob you off with a vague suggestion of how you can do the work or since you are his boss throw something superficial together to get you off his back. Example 2 will set up a respectful relationship where Govind will not only do what you ask of him, but may have other skills or insights into your project that you didn't know he had. He is also likely to do the task you requested in a shorter timeframe since he needs to meet his own deadline with higher-quality output since he will feel needed as an essential part of the organisation. As an additional benefit, Govind will also speak well of the job down the line and a happy team gives a good impression to the VC who will be all the more inclined to grant the additional round of funding.

Request suggestions

Many times, you can lead from the rear by asking the right questions in the right context, and letting someone else take centre stage.

An example is a meeting that's getting nowhere where the leader is absent, and the group is muddling along more from routine inertia than the will to reach any decision. Taking charge may work, more likely it is likely to raise bristles and complicate the issue with ego clashes. The right question at this point will probably decide the leader by default. Ask what the objective of the meeting is. Request suggestions of where to go from that juncture. Ask about the possible results you need to generate. The questions will be well received, get down to work and note those ideas down.

Universal planning

When jobs are complex, involve everybody concerned in the planning, rather than planning everything and assigning tasks. Present a guideline; request everyone's suggestions to refine the list. Allow them to choose the jobs they know they can do well. There will be the inevitable few that no one wants, make these more interesting, and divide them fairly among the group taking the least popular ones on yourself.

Chicken soup for the Ego

Being asked for an opinion is a great way to bolster a fragile ego. A person's assistance or support will be granted willingly and with pleasure when you say you know and respect their skill and ability. Praise them for a previous job well done and communicate your admiration of that job. Everybody likes to be reminded of their successes. Saying something like `Pratibha told me that you were the best person to talk to about this subject', will work wonders if the person is a personable young man. It will work even better with the not-so young men!

Right-angled view!

When someone who doesn't report to you does something wrong, or something that counters your view of what is appropriate company culture, you may not be in a position to chew them out. Telling them that you will tell his boss won't work, either, as their boss has more things on his plate to worry about. Besides, such people don't generally like having their choices criticised. Positive feedback works in these areas much better. Be very personal, and as positive as possible.

Example 1

Delivered via memo, e-mail, or in Sonali's cubicle: ``Sonali, your behaviour was wrong, and I don't like it. Pull up your socks or find yourself another job.

Example 2

Delivered in person, again at the coffee machine or at Sonali's workstation: ``Sonu, I've noticed that Karishma has a behaviour aberration, I was wondering if you might help her understand that it's not the way we like things done in the company?'' It will need you to share the story with Karishma so that she'll know why Sonali's talking to her! Our concept of `izzat', works very well here. Always give people the opportunity to fix mistakes without ``losing face'' and having to admit to them. Always be willing to admit that perhaps the nature of the issue was not communicated correctly. Look at things from the right angle to fix problems.

Credit is like manure

It has to be spread around to encourage young things to grow!When you're congratulated for your success, be sure to give credit to the people on your team. Don't treat praise as if it is going out of stock. Credit, kudos and praise seem to multiply exponentially the more you spread them around and the growth of your people will help you reach greater heights.

Take names of those who helped, mention specific tasks done (Govind did a wonderful job of the project, his eleventh hour fine-tuning saved our bacon!) Thank-you notes are great. A card is better; flowers for the ladies always give pleasure. Certificates of appreciation will add matter to their CVs.

Be public

Have a project wrap-up party or event, and invite everyone who had anything to do with the project, even tangentially. Sharing the credit not only feels good for you and them, but assures you of having an easier time getting help in the future.


Today's trend points at a movement away from hierarchical reporting relationships with command-and-control styles of management. To master leadership styles that undermine the hierarchical system will benefit everyone, from the CEO to the entry-level newcomer. Even the company top brass will find that their pet projects and initiatives will be far more successful. Employees will work happily, be more accountable, creative, and productive if these concepts are followed rather than by pulling rank to underline one's own importance.

Abhimanyu Acharya

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