This was actually one of my posts during Olympus 09 at IIM Calcutta.
Turn the pages of history and you’ll find that leadership has taken different shades in different times and cultures. Even those who are icons of leadership seem to differ in what they opine of a leader. For Napoleon, a leader was a dealer in hope while John Updike’s leader is one who, out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take upon himself the woe of the people. For many others, a leader is one who knows the way, shows the way and goes the way. But whose hopes are we talking about? Who are the people in woe? Who needs to be shown a way? Adolf Hitler seemed to have taken up all the above mentioned roles. But was he an ideal leader?
Leader – meaning one who leads. The question here is – lead whom? Lead how? To where? And why? The answers to these questions would lead us to our ultimate answer. Well, here are my answers to these questions.
An ideal leader begins by leading himself. Yes, even the greatest icons of selflessness began with a selfish motive of leading themselves to a path carved for them. An ideal leader must first lead himself to the right role. I call this Realization. Second, they lead the people around them and who know them. They influence these people by their visible actions and audible words. I call this Inspiration. And then an ideal leader starts to spread his aroma beyond the realms of his physical presence. He affects thoughts and actions across time and space. That’s when he starts touching lives of people who don’t even know him. This is the stage of Transcension. The three stages together pretty much answer our first question.
Lead - How?
There is a catch in the answer to the first question. These effects or influences can be both positive and negative. So how to decide which is what? I think we can follow a simple rule here. If you bring about more smiles than tears and if you are revered by more people than those by whom you are hated over a significant span of time and population, you are on the right track.
Moreover an ideal leader must lead through thought, words and actions equally. Leading by examples can be one of the most effective ways to lead and therefore I would expect an ideal leader to be able to put his foot forward before he asks anyone else to do anything.
This is perhaps the most difficult question as the answer to this depends a lot on time and situation. Is an army officer leading his men to kill thousands, leading in the right direction? Should a leader lead his men by their choice or his? Was a person like Galileo who faced the wrath of people in his times a leader in his field? Were Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler great leaders? The answer would vary depending upon the person answering. The perceptions to these questions may change heavily with people and time. Thus, while there cannot be an absolute answer to this, we can say that at any instant, if the actions, words or thoughts of the leader have helped in improving the lives of his followers by even a fraction, he can be said to be successful. A leader is leader only if he has followers and so it’s the followers who decide whether they were led on the right path or not. Having said that, I still feel that exceptions may exist.
Lead - Why?
This is the most interesting question. A glance at the names of some of the most popular leaders of all times will actually show up many names who led not because they wanted to lead, neither because the followers wanted them to but because of a natural order of events and situations. I suppose it’s another one of nature’s rule. Whenever a leader is required, one emerges. Not only humans but even animals need leaders. And, whether intelligently or not, purposefully or not, diligently or not; a leader is always chosen. Perhaps the only logical answer to this question can be – leaders lead because they can. An ideal leader here, can only be one who realises this potential of his and takes deliberate measures. This can be in the form of a vision and a mission to fulfil it.
Thus an ideal leader is one who can justify and stand good on all parameters discussed above. It He can be someone like Mahatma Gandhi, who passed through the stages of realization, inspiration as well as Transcension. He, over time, distance, cultures and beliefs has proved to be ‘right’ in actions, thought as well as words for most. He led us all to a destination desired and appreciated by majority and he led because he had both a vision and a mission that drove him.